KEKAHA, Hawaii – “I’m going to be a firefighter, grandma!” Janis Kimata, Assistant Chief of Prevention for Barking Sands Fire and Emergency Services, recounts the day she told her grandmother the news of her new job. “She said ‘no you cannot be a firefighter!’ so I said, ‘No, I'm telling you, I’m going to be a firefighter.’”
Kimata ran track in highschool and eventually became a sponsored competitive runner. Although her track coach, who was also the fire captain, had told her she would make a great firefighter, she never thought about it much because she didn’t know enough about the job to really be interested in it. However, after the tragedy of Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which destroyed her home and devastated the entire island, Kimata decided to start studying firefighting. She did this simply by buying books on the subject and reading during her free time. She then quickly realized that being a firefighter would be something she would love.
“I used to think, ‘that’s so boring,’” Kimata said, explaining that if she had known how exciting it would be, she may have started studying it straight out of highschool.
When Kimata was called to do an interview with Barking Sands Fire and Emergency Services at Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) 22 years ago, she was unaware that she also had to complete an agility course before she could be hired. She showed up in her comfortable clothes and shoes as instructed and had no idea what to expect. Having to do this just six months after giving birth to her first child, she was thankful for growing up running competitively and for continuing to run throughout her entire pregnancy. In the group of 20 who were completing the course, she was the only female.
“I had a man in that group who told me he was 50 years old at the time,” Kimata said. “So I thought, if he can do it, I can.”
Completing the initial agility test, however, was not Kimata’s only challenge. She said there was a period of time when she had to deal with management that did not want females in the fire service and with peers and subordinates who gave her no respect simply because she was a female.
“I didn’t want to give up,” Kimata said, “because in the back of my mind I’m thinking that I don’t want young girls to think I just took the easy way out, that I just quit and let them win. So I felt that I always had to prove that I could be an assistant chief, manage my guys, and do the job.”
Although Kimata has faced challenges working in the fire service, her career has held many more positives than negatives. One aspect of the job that she was not expecting was the community outreach. Having the opportunity to speak at schools turned out to be one of her favorite parts of being a firefighter.
“I spend a lot of time going to schools, teaching classes and career days to try to get more females,” Kimata said. “It's not for [the captain], it's not for our department. I go because I love our career and I want the kids to know that females can do it too.”
Kimata has spent her entire career with PMRF. She recalls sending her resume in on the final day they were accepting applications and notes that they took a chance on her and gave her the opportunity to prove herself. Her dedication to the job led to her becoming the first female Chief Officer for the Barking Sands Fire Department and the second ever in Hawai`i. Although at this point the state and the county have reached out to her hoping to persuade her to join them, Kimata remains dedicated to PMRF. Having a work environment full of supportive coworkers and opportunities for growth helped show her that she was capable of almost anything.
“I used to always think because I’m female, I can’t do certain things,” Kimata said, “but it made me realize, I’m not going to use the words ‘I can’t’ anymore, I’m just going to say ‘I can try.’”
Being a firefighter is an exciting career full of surprises and opportunities. It is impossible to know what any day has in store, but Kimata has loved every day since making the decision to apply at PMRF. Being the only female in an all male environment has not stopped her from developing lasting relationships and unforgettable memories.
“Finally [my grandma] said ‘ok you be safe’ and I said ‘Yeah I’m actually really enjoying it.’”