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She can stand the heat: Firefighter recognized for fitness, dedication

When Heidi Charest was a little girl, she never imagined growing up to be a firefighter. She never pictured herself posing for photos in a national publication, either. But now she finds herself doing both.

The 30-year-old Burton resident has been a firefighter with the Lady's Island/St. Helena Fire District for the past 21/2 years and was just recognized for her hard work with a spot in the 2011 America's Female Firefighters calendar.

"It's a big honor," said Charest, who can be found on the September page of the latest calendar. She is one of 13 women across the country featured in the calendar for exemplifying good health, fitness, moral character and dedication to the profession.

To make it into the nonprofit organization's calendar, Charest had to fill out a nine-page application, create a video about herself and get four letters of recommendation. Then a committee decided which of the full-time female firefighters would be featured in next year's calendar.

"It's not all about a pretty face," America's Female Firefighters vice president and director Pam Lillard said. She said Charest is beautiful, but she's also fit, full of energy and "pretty much has it all."

At 5 feet 6 inches tall and 140 pounds, Charest is definitely in shape -- fit enough to carry a 42-pound hose up six flights of stairs and drag a 175-pound dummy 106 feet. She did that and a lot more last weekend at a national Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge in Kissimmee, Fla., where she and Georgia firefighter Brandon Cunningham broke the world record in the co-ed tandem race. Charest met Cunningham at another firefighter combat challenge in 2008 in Myrtle Beach, and they teamed up for this event. Their combined time was 1:26; the previous record was 1:29, set in 2007. Charest also placed second in the female individual race last weekend. And about a month ago she won several competitions at a combat challenge in Maryland -- first place for individuals, first place for female relay and third place for tandem.

That kind of rigorous physical challenge is what attracted Charest to a career in firefighting. After hearing about firefighter combat challenges a few years ago, her mind was made up. She started volunteering as a firefighter so she could compete in the events. She began practicing with the other firefighters and has done eight or nine competitions since. She will compete in the world Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge in November in Myrtle Beach.

A representative from the challenge said firefighters from Slovenia, Germany, France and New Zealand will compete, but most will come from the United States and Canada. About 700 firefighters will participate in the six day-event, with only about 25 women competing.

"It's an extreme challenge," Charest said. "It is the hardest thing physically I've ever trained for."

Lady's Island/St. Helena Fire District fire chief Bruce Kline said he recommended Charest for the calendar because she's one of his best employees, one of the most physically fit people he knows, and he thought it would be a great opportunity for her. He bragged that she was awarded the highly esteemed "Pride of the Battalion" during recruit school at the fire academy in Columbia.

"She has excelled at everything she's done here at the fire department," Kline said.

Charest said she decided to apply for the AFF calendar instead of others because its proceeds benefit burn victims throughout the United States. The organization has donated to various children's burn camps, burn foundations and burn funds, including The People's Burn Foundation and the International Association of Fire Fighters Burn Foundation.

In addition to helping burn survivors, Lillard said the calendar allows female firefighters to be positive role models for girls. She said only about 4 percent of paid full-time firefighters in the U.S. are women.

"Sometimes little girls don't think about becoming a firefighter," Lillard said. "So we try to be positive role models about health and fitness, and let them know that it's an OK job to have."

For Charest, firefighting is a great job. As with the firefighter competitions, she loves the challenge. She loves that she could be doing something different every day.

"You never know what to expect when (you're given the alert)," Charest said. "I enjoy it -- the excitement -- and being able to help other people."

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