In the 1940s when Dorothy Meskell took over her father’s company, Approved Fire Protection, women made up roughly 38 percent of the workforce. There were sharp differences in the roles men and women held, with only a small number of women pursuing careers in traditionally male industries such as manufacturing, construction and even fire suppression.
“Customers who called would push Grandma Meskell off and ask to speak to the guy in the office,” says her granddaughter, Diane Pein, current president of Approved Fire Protection. “This did not deter her, and these customers eventually came to respect her position, becoming good friends. She was always a lady with great decorum who could also fit in with the guys, easily conversing on hunting and sports.”
As the number of women in fire suppression steadily rises, Diane believes that the different approach and energetic perspective women can bring to their jobs will make our industry stronger. “On the organizations and committees where I have served, I have seen women deal with hurdles in a more creative way,” Diane says.
Today, there are so many influential women making an impact on the fire suppression industry. We spoke with a few of these women to hear more about their careers, experiences and how they see the future of the industry.
President, Approved Fire Protection
South Plainfield, NJ
“…it really hit me that life has a purpose for us and every avenue takes us through that journey, and this is what I was meant to do.”
Growing up, Diane never planned to join the family business. Determined to be a scientist, she studied biochemical engineering when she began her career. When a severe illness put her out of work for a while, her dad offered her job at his company. She declined. On a pretense, he sent her to visit Grandma Meskell in Florida, who also suggested she join the family business. Of course, she did. And that was 27 years ago.
While Diane has never thought of fire suppression as being either male- or female-oriented, she did find herself facing some of the same biases that Grandma Meskell faced at first. Starting as a technician to learn every aspect of the business, Diane recalls showing up for service work only to have a customer tell her that it was a rough job that would be too much for her. Like Grandma Meskell, Diane was not deterred, got the job done, and to this day she and that customer are dear friends, laughing about that first incident.
When it came time to take over her father’s business, Diane faced new challenges common in any parent-child succession. “I heard ‘your father wouldn’t do it this way’ a lot,” she says. Her response? “My dad’s not here.” And like everything else, Diane did her thing and kept moving.
But the greatest challenge of Diane’s career also led to her greatest accomplishment. In August 2017 when she bought the company, Approved Fire Protection faced some financial hurdles. Despite the potential for failure, Diane’s leadership team hung with her and were eager to understand and solve the problem together. They turned the business into a flourishing, profitable enterprise, even through the pandemic. “These great leaders on my team could do anything,” she says.
Diane loves the fire suppression industry and all the people who she has met. “I felt that particularly in the NAFED Las Vegas conference. After not being together for 18 months, it took me a minute to introduce the keynote speaker because, walking into that venue, it really hit me that life has a purpose for us and every avenue takes us through that journey, and this is what I was meant to do. It took me a long time to get to this spot. I’m so glad to be here, so thank you, Grandma. And I hope she’s proud of what I’m doing.”
Anna Gavin runs Fireline Corporation, a company started by her grandfather and later run by her father. Like Diane, Anna tells a similar story of growing up without a desire to join the family business. Although she was looking at fire extinguishers at the age of five and would work for her dad occasionally in college, she started her career at Marriott International before returning to work for her dad part-time. Anna never intended to take a leadership role in the company, but when her father passed away unexpectedly in 2008, she was the only one to run it.
At first, Anna took on this leadership role because she and her mother knew how important the company had been to her father and they cared about the 140 employees. “I never understood the allure of the fire suppression business,” she says, “until I started running it.”
Because Anna was just 27 when she became president, she found her relative youth to be a bigger challenge than her gender. “My network wasn’t as big back then,” she says. “I didn’t have other female role models in the industry. But what I have seen in the industry is our numbers are increasing and women are taking more leadership positions.”
Anna’s favorite part about her job is developing a company culture and providing her team with a good working experience. “Our number-one recruiting tool is our people,” she says. “We have strong referrals and people who are committed to the company.”
“Women have a strong future in this business,” says Anna. “I have seen the numbers increasing in more positions of power throughout my tenure. There are more daughters taking over their fathers’ businesses.” Anna’s team is over 60 percent women, and she has a great blend of backgrounds and experiences on her team.
As to what Anna would like to see in the future, she thinks women aren’t in enough technical roles that get the most attention. Her biggest advice to both men and women who want to join the industry? “Say yes, even if you feel like you are not already the most qualified. I have learned so much by saying yes in this industry.”
The fire suppression industry is also a family affair for Staci Stidham of Cofessco Fire Protection, who recalls being around the business since she was five years old. Her father took over as primary owner of Cofessco Fire Protection in the early 2000s. Staci’s mom would fill in the gaps where needed and her brother has spent his entire career there. Like Diane and Anna, Staci first spread her wings working in other industries before joining her father’s company.
“My dad approached me in 2005 to see if I would be interested in coming to work for him,” says Staci. “I was looking for a more fulfilling career, so I jumped at the chance.”
She started by helping with data entry for new installation projects, and soon, her curiosity about the business took her on service calls with technicians. “The challenge in working with the technicians wasn’t so much that I was female as it was that I was the boss’s daughter,” she says. “They thought I was there as some sort of a spy, but I was just there to learn.”
Once the techs realized that she was not watching their every move to report back to the owner, she developed a strong relationship with them. “I really liked the physical side of the business and seeing a lot of things on-site with our customers,” says Staci. “I want to get back in the field.”
One of the things Staci likes most about the business is that each day is a little different and each day she has the opportunity to help someone, whether it is a customer or an employee. She also likes attending industry conferences and seeing more women get involved.
Kendall May Liddicoat
Field Operations Manager, Metro Safety and Fire, Inc.
"The boots on the ground are the most vital part to ensuring our customers are taken care of. So it starts with me taking care of them."
Kendall May Liddicoat began her career in the industry a little differently from the women we’ve profiled so far. “Years ago, a friend of mine was working for Metro Safety and Fire at the time and called to recruit me to perform fire watch for the building. Twenty-two-year-old me thought, ‘OK, whatever that is.’ I happened to be available and willing to walk around a building every half-an-hour for a week. It was absolutely the easiest and most boring position I’ve had in the industry to date,” recalls Kendall. After this little adventure, Kendall was asked to join the office team in Accounts Receivable, where a curiosity for what exactly she was processing took hold. The field team patiently explained the different aspects of the company to Kendall. This thirst for knowledge led her to continue with the company as she grew into the position that she got to know and love.
“Like other ‘lifers’ in the industry — it just bit me,” she says. “All things fire-nerdy got into my blood. The science behind why certain chemicals behave the way they do, how they interact with other media they are protecting. I love the way technology keeps moving the industry forward.”
What motivates Kendall the most is her field team. They show up every day to do their very best for their customers and community. Her primary goal is to be sure that they are equipped with the tools, knowledge, resources and connections that will help them use their time effectively and safely.
“The boots on the ground are the most vital part to ensuring our customers are taken care of,” she says. “So it starts with me taking care of them.”
One of Kendall’s favorite parts of the industry is the people. “I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with some incredibly brilliant, innovative, and motivated humans throughout the years,” she adds. From attending NAFED events and being part of the conference planning committee, to participating in Amerex’s FlashForward, to keeping up with monthly trainings and becoming vice president of the Oregon Fire Equipment Distributors Association. Kendall has enjoyed watching Metro Safety and Fire become an employee-owned and female-led company.
Her best advice to women and others considering a career in fire suppression? “Do it!” says Kendall. “You’re going to get dirty and have long days. But at the end of the day, you’ll know that you’ve contributed to keeping your community protected and educated. Being female doesn’t necessarily help or hinder any portion of your potential career in the industry. If you’ve got a knack or passion for it, jump in and you’ll find a great group of like-minded people.”
Melinda Atwood Wanke
CMO/Program Director, BHC/FED Learning Center
"Everyone's truth is their own but deciding before the heat of the moment, how to react before the situation arises, will add two valuable tools to their tool bag - grace and confidence."
Like Kendall, Melinda stumbled into the fire protection industry but found the opportunity so amazing that she dug in and happily hasn’t looked back. “I'm passionate about fire protection, because it's a special trade, if done properly, it protects lives and property,” she says. “Fires happen every single day, and when there is no loss of life, I'm incredibly proud of our professional community.”
Hands-down, the favorite part of her work has to be creating the FED Learning Center. “Many commercial buildings aren’t fire safety compliant, despite fire safety codes and businesses willing to comply,” Melinda states. “There's simply greater demand than the supply of qualified technicians. The FEDLC addresses this issue head-on; I'm so grateful to have been trusted with this responsibility!”
Each day Melinda wakes up thinking about ways to bring more talent into our industry because fire is a real threat to lives and property. She knows it takes a considerable knowledge, expertise, and renewable workforce to develop, install, and maintain the safety equipment systems that protects us all.
Melinda has experienced firsthand the tremendous strides that women have made in the industry. In 2003, she went to the first trade event of her career. She was representing her company in a safety distributor buying group discussing the importance of fire safety on construction sites when she overheard a man say, “What is this little girl going to teach us about fire extinguishers?” At that point, Melinda knew she had to decide who she was going to be.
“Was I going to cower and be the “little girl” they expected me to be, or was I going to stand up and be the industry leader I knew I could be?” she says. “So, I simply smiled, making eye contact with the him. I wanted him to know that I acknowledged his concern but would show him that I could and would bring value. I’ve been steadfast since; not even blinking in similar situations.”
She would love to see our professional community continue to recognize the value of women. “I’d love to see industry members participate in the FED Learning Center On-Demand series covering micro-aggressions,” she says. “At BHC, we're lucky enough to have a CHRO certified in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and have been collaborating with her to bring views, via training sessions, into the industry.” She’s proud to help create greater access to this important information through their platform and am hopeful that every person in fire protection spends intentional time on the topic.
Her advice to women, especially young women, is to, first, expect equity and inclusion every time, everywhere and never marginalization due to gender identity. Second, she suggests they need to decide how to respond to negative comments or situations before they’re in that moment.
“ I made my decision in that first event and have carried my truth for 20 years. Everyone’s truth is their own but deciding before the heat of the moment, how to react before the situation arises, will add two valuable tools to their tool bag—grace and confidence,” she says. “ You can never control others, but you have absolute control over your story and your journey. Being prepared will help you be the best version of yourself.”
So, to women everywhere, Melinda says to write your own story and go forward being great!
Director of Marketing, Summit Companies
Mendota Heights, MN
"...I don't need to twist the sales pitch or message for [the end user] to see that fire suppression is worth caring about."
A relative newcomer to the industry, Kate joined the industry by chance three years ago when her recruiter pitched her current role at Summit Companies. She had previously worked in the banking industry and was ready for a change. “Talk about a change!” she says. “These last three years have been a combination of challenging, exciting, refreshing and drinking from a fire hose. . .all at once.”
Prior to working at Summit Companies, if you had asked Kate why she cares about fire suppression, she would not have realized the importance or necessity of it. She now would answer that you HAVE to care. “Our lives and safety depend on having maintained fire suppression systems in place,” she says. “And I can easily connect the dots from my role in marketing to the end user—I don’t need to twist the sales pitch or message for them to see that fire suppression is worth caring about. The destruction, devastation and interruption caused by fire is all that’s needed.”
Protecting and securing the safety and well-being of the Summit customers motivates Kate each day. In addition, the team around her, from the technicians in the field to the CEO to the managers who run the branches all work extremely hard. That type of passion and motivation is contagious.
“What I love most about my job is being able to take something and make it better,” she says. “By putting myself in the customer’s shoes, the path to achieving the desired end result becomes clearer.” Her job is to constantly think about how Summit Companies is showing up in the world and the value that the company is providing not just to customers, but to people who just saw a social media post. Everything from impacting communities to making sure that the Summit Companies employees feel value are the little things that make all the difference and she finds each day filled with ways to make things better.
Kate has seen the number of women leaders and team members at Summit Companies alone dramatically increase during her tenure. “I’m proud to say that many of these women I work alongside have dedicated their career to fire protection and have paved the way for other women within the industry,” she says. “We not only have more women team members in sales and office roles; we also have promoted and hired several women for roles that have been previously male dominated, such as branch managers and technicians.”
She’s thankful to work for a company that welcomes and encourages all voices to contribute, men and women alike. Her advice to other women who would like to enter the feel is to use the strengths and qualities that are unique to you especially within an industry that’s all about saving lives and keeping people safe. “Be curious and ask questions,” she says. “Partner and rely on each other—you can’t do it alone. And make sure the company that you work for and the people you surround yourself with give you energy and a sense of purpose.”
Managing Director & Co-Owner, Umbra FSP GmbH
"We've proven our value and abilities, so I hope to see more women continue to lead."
Fire suppression is a global industry, and Amerex is lucky enough to partner with incredible men and women around the world like Stefanie Herrmann of Berlin, Germany-based Umbra FSP. Stefanie boasts nearly 20 years of experience already, but like some of the other women profiled, she found the industry by chance. “I began working as a student at tedious tasks, like data entry, and soon I was supporting the marketing & engineering department with creating and revising data sheets,” Stefanie recalls.
“When I finished university, I helped develop a sales department within an existing company that designed and installed fire suppression systems. After one year, my previous director and I decided to spin off the department and form a new company which became Umbra FSP (FSP for Fire Safety Products),” Stefanie says. “Since, I have had the pleasure to become one of the two owners of Umbra as well as taking on the director/manager position.”
Even though she didn’t always intend to enter the fire suppression industry, Stefanie’s appreciation for firefighting is deeply rooted. “I had an incident with fire in my childhood, so I know how scary it can be. I was heroically rescued from our apartment by a firefighter. None of my family was hurt and our property was not seriously damaged. Fire is dangerous and its impacts can be devastating for people, businesses, communities and the environment. It’s a very important aspect of construction and various industries,” she says.
Now, Stefanie is motivated to help protect people and property and, as a company leader, to also to lead her company. “The business is my ‘baby’ and I want to see it grow up. We have proven our value to a good number of partners, and it is my responsibility to care for our employees and to offer the best possible customer service, both technically and commercially. My favorite parts of my work are talking with customers, developing technical solutions and learning about new and different technologies in fire suppression,” Stefanie adds.
Stefanie also hopes to see more gender parity in leadership roles in the future. “I do have to admit that women are still underrepresented in the fire suppression industry. Most women in the industry are not in ‘the front row,’ so to speak. A small number of women are present for the community, for customers and in organizations, and all of these women are well known and respected. We’ve proven our value and abilities, so I hope to see more women continue to lead.”
In the future, Stefanie looks forward to seeing the industry continue to be invigorated by energetic new faces. She says, “I’ve noticed a larger share of younger people active in this industry than in the past, and I hope this trend will continue, and I hope that also means that female representation will improve.” Stefanie has simple advice for young women considering a career in the fire suppression industry: “Don’t be afraid! Try your luck and believe in your abilities!”
According to Stefanie, young women with interests in STEM subjects should definitely consider a career in the industry. She says, “If you’re interested in technical subjects and are not afraid of physics, chemistry and math, just go forward. I am a good example that it doesn’t take an engineering degree to become technically knowledgeable. Being a woman sometimes leaves us room to ask more questions, ask advice. Take every chance to learn and, like I do now, you will know how to handle the technical questions and challenges, too. As a woman, people will take a second glance at you in this industry, but that is just a chance to be remembered. Follow a principle that guides us at Umbra — be honest and true, know your limits, and you’ll only stand out in a positive way.”