When I was young I wanted to grow up and be a policeman. My mother was, of course, completely against this idea. As I got older I had my doubts as well. I mean, I've never been fond of guns and the idea of getting shot at sounded a bit scary to me. I started working with computers when I was in the 6th grade and I liked it. In high school I also wanted to be a chef but my mother didn't think that was a great plan either. I know she wanted the best for me and wanted me to have a good financial life but I think I gave up things I liked for finanical security. Now that I'm 37 and deep into a career in Technology I do wish I had gone another route. I'm good at what I do and I do like it, but I think I would have liked other things more.
I joined the fire department in November 2001. When I joined I really didn't have a plan of what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something good in my life and do volunteer work to help my community. I had no idea where this path in my life would take me but I just knew I wanted to do something after September 11th. My husband joined at the same time and the first thing I noticed is that there weren't many women in the department and that women weren't that highly regarded. At the interview with the incoming Chief he barely looked at me and mostly spoke to my husband.
We were assigned to the EMS company and started learning about the ambulance and going on ambulance calls. We also started a basic firefighting class pretty soon after joining. I liked both things but I noticed that most women in the department gravitated towards the EMS company and weren't really firefighters. I only had to put out one car fire to know I wanted to be a firefighter.
At the same time I joined, another woman joined but she was much younger than me, just graduating from high school. She's a lot like me, though, in that I would say she's not a girly-girl. Neither of us is afraid to get dirty or to do our fair share of the work. We don't show up to work at the firehouse wearing fancy clothes and shoes and we do not whine about things that need to be done. Some women join the fire department to hang out with the boys but you don't get respect if you act like a bimbo.
Several times in the first few months I got told that "women didn't belong in the fire department". I just smiled and went about my business. Did it hurt? Sure did. Did I let them see that? No chance. I figured out who was an asshole and who was skeptical and who was open minded fairly quickly. I kept my mouth shut and did my part to learn everything I could learn. I think people could see that I was different from most women they knew. I rolled hose, I cleaned floors, I washed firetrucks. I made a lot of friends the night it was time for my company to cook dinner and I put out a great meal with dessert. After that, maybe women weren't all so bad.
They rotated us through the Truck company and the Engine company and I decided I liked Engine company 1 best of all. Dave decided that Truck company was the place for him and it's probably better in the long run that we made that split. I had to grow my own wings and find my own place.
People learned slowly that I was different than most women they knew. I could take a joke, I was not offended by foul language or anything else they did, and I wasn't afraid to work hard. During our first Department Inspection I worked really hard on the engine and I think people took notice. When parade season came around and I was willing and able to march in parades I made a few more friends. The night I had a beer in each hand after the parade and they were both mine and older member said, "Are they for you?" and I said "Yup" and he said, "She's all right." I became one of the guys, an exception to the rule, an accepted member of their clan.
It hasn't been easy and there have been setbacks but joining the fire department has been one of the best things that happened to my life. Even after they accepted me into their clan I still was not completely trusted. After my second year I tried to run for Vice President but I barely got any votes. I was made Engineer of a engine when the Engineer moved to another station. Dave and I tried to make friends with people but it was hard to break into their cliques that they've had since they were kids. People were nice to us but we were more acquaintences than friends. We didn't really get invited to do things and people didn't really seek us out to ask for our help.
Around the fifth year things started to change. Dave got involved with the Fair committee and I became more involved with my company. I think people started to recoginize our value as members. Early last year I was asked to take over as secretary to the Board of Fire Commissioners because the current secretary was going to quit. He didn't end up quitting but did end up getting fired a few months later and I took over the position. I know, Woman = Secretary, and all that but I was sort of honored that they came and asked me to do it. It involves being party to information that is confidential and I saw it as a show of trust in my committment to the fire department. Before that I was asked to help write the Ethics policy for the department. The person that asked me to help was someone who emphatically told me that women did not belong in the fire service. He said he asked me because he thought me to be fair minded and intelligent.
Late last year when it was getting close to election time I was being asked to run for several positions. More than one person came to me and asked me to take over a spot as a Commissioner. I politely declined as I had already promised to be their secretary. Other people wanted to know why I wasn't running for Vice President or Lieutenant of my company. Our Captain was going to move up and run for Chief and our current Lieutenant was going to run for Captain. I thought about it for a while and then thought about the other person who was going to run for Lieutenant and decided to run. I really wasn't sure that I could get elected. Despite the hearts and minds I had changed I still wasn't sure a woman could become a fire officer. Plently of women had been EMS officers but no woman had ever been a fire officer in the 90+ years of history of the department. Women have only been permitted to be members for about 20 or so years.
I heard from a lot of people that they were going to support me but the thing is, people blow smoke up your ass around that place. They'll tell you one thing to your face and then do something entirely different behind your back. The crazy thing is that I did win by a fairly large margin. The other crazy thing is that I don't think they all voted for me just because they didn't want the other guy.
It's a little scary being the Lieutenant and I'm working on getting used to it. There have already been some down sides and I have felt the back stabbing already and that part hurts. It hurts to think that people who you thought were your friends are talking bad about you behind your back for no good reason. And some of the things they are saying aren't even true statements. This is just crap I have to deal with now.
So to bring this back full circle, I am finally going to be a police officer of sorts. I am in the middle of Fire Police class :) I wasn't going to take the class because I didn't really have an interest in being a Fire Police Officer because really all they are is glorified traffic directors but all of the other officers and chiefs are taking the class and it's the right thing for me to do as well.
And the other woman who joined the department at the same time as me? She's the first female police officer in our town. I guess we're both bucking the system.