TFD marks 30 years of women fighting fires in ToledoWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
The recent Women of Courage event celebrated 30 years of female firefighters in Toledo, from the pioneering women of the Class of 1984 to those who graduated with the latest Toledo Fire & Rescue Department (TFD) class this winter.
As a member of the first TFD class to include women, Barb Aldrich, 59, can look back on her 30-year career with pride. Aldrich and her female classmates persevered through years of skepticism, scrutiny and discrimination to win over most of their co-workers in the male-dominated profession. She is the last of the nine women from her class still on the line.
“When we first came on, there was a lot of animosity,” Aldrich said. “They were always bringing people out to see that we could do the job and check what we were doing. Every little thing was scrutinized. That was pretty much to be expected, but I was not prepared for the animosity. I was a little taken back because I’d worked for years with guys. To me it was no big deal.”
Aldrich, whose father was a volunteer firefighter, joined TFD after 10 years as a police officer, EMT and paramedic in her hometown of Gibsonburg.
In the early years, men and women didn’t have separate sleeping or restroom facilities. Firefighters’ wives would stop by to size up the female firefighters, both to check out potential competition and make sure their husbands’ safety wouldn’t be compromised at a fire, she said.
“[They’d be wondering], ‘Can she get my husband out of a fire?’ I was like, ‘Can your husband get me out of a fire?’” said the 6-foot-tall Aldrich.
One day, Aldrich came to work to find her hydrant wrench painted pink.
“That actually really helped me out because I never lost that pink hydrant wrench in the grass at night and there was not a company in this city that was going to steal that wrench, so they saved me a lot of trouble,” Aldrich said.
After one male firefighter refused to acknowledge her, Aldrich followed him around until she convinced him she was serious about learning the job.
“He ended up taking over all my drills and training. He taught me so much that I use even today and we stayed friends to the end,” she said.
Aldrich said it took three or four years before she started feeling a shift toward acceptance from a majority of male co-workers, although some still aren’t convinced women belong in fire service.
“This isn’t a job; it’s a career and it becomes a way of life. You have to have a drive inside you that says, ‘I can do this,’” Aldrich said. “There are guys today on the job who think women don’t belong in the fire service, but you can go to any job and find that same attitude. I don’t worry about them. We have just as many men who support us and let us do our jobs as we have been trained to do. When we put our gear on and we’re in that fire, you don’t know who’s who. All that matters is if you can perform at the scene.”
Mayor D. Michael Collins, a retired Toledo police officer, spoke at the May 3 Women of Courage event, calling it a “milestone day.” May 11 is the 30th anniversary of TFD’s Class of 1984’s graduation. Members include many of the department’s current top brass, including Chief Luis Santiago, Assistant Chief Phillip Cervantes, Deputy Chief Thomas Jaksetic, Battalion Chief Gerald Takats and Battalion Chief Dennis Facer.
Collins graduated with the 1973 Toledo Police Academy class, the first to include a woman with the male-equivalent title of police officer rather than police matron, he said.
“I’m very proud to say I happen to be the mayor of a city that recognizes the importance in the profession that it is not gender-biased, that women play a vital role,” Collins said.
Robert Schwanzl, retired TFD assistant chief and board president for the Toledo Firefighters Museum, said then-Chief William Winkle decided in 1982 to start recruiting women before the department was court-mandated as it had been for minority firefighters.
In 1983, a new agility test called FEAT — First Encounter Acceptance Test — was developed that is still used today. Rather than pushups, situps, pullups and vertical jumps, the test measures ability to stretch and roll hoses, chop holes in roofs, lift heavy objects and other skills a firefighter actually uses on the job, Schwanzl said. Both men and women are measured by the same standard.
Of the department’s 526 firefighters, 56 are women, including 48 white women, four Hispanic women and three black women. The highest-ranking female is Battalion Chief Sally Glombowski. TFD has 347 white male firefighters, 77 black male firefighters and 43 Hispanic male firefighters.
The nine women in the 1984 class were Aldrich, Christine Armstrong, Kathryn Balogh Mayer, Sheila Layson, Deborah Leonard, Dorothy Lopez, Geraldine McCalland, Rebecca Williams and Jennifer Wilson. One of the women and two men didn’t graduate; another woman was cut along with two men during the probationary period, Schwanzl said.
Wilson’s firefighting career was cut short in 1994 when she stopped to help at the scene of an injury accident while off-duty and was struck by a drunken driver. She now works as a dispatcher.
“This is my family,” Wilson said. “It’s the best career you can ever want to have.”
Schwanzl, who was in charge of training for the Class of 1984, said it took time for many firefighters to get used to women on the job.
“Change is something a lot of people really don’t like and a lot of people didn’t really like the idea they were going to have women on the Toledo Fire & Rescue Department, but we changed that. Actually it was the women we hired who changed that. They made it work. Pioneers are truly what these women were,” he said.
Class of 1984 member Tim Ross, still a TFD firefighter, said at first he didn’t realize the significance of having female classmates.
“That’s all I knew. That’s who we came in with. We saw them every day,” Ross said. “When we got on the line that’s when I was acutely aware this was something major, because it was the topic of conversation in so many engine houses.
“There was a lot of fear, there was a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of things they had to go through,” Ross said. “I’m proud to say they stuck through, they persevered, they endured a lot and they did it with class. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
“Being pro-women doesn’t mean you’re anti-man. It means you celebrate women and what they’ve done. I think that’s so important. They’ve brought so much to the table. Why would you not want to celebrate this?”
Class of 1984 member Mark McBee, also still a TFD firefighter, said the department went through a lot of “growing pains” after bringing women into the department.
“A lot of the rhetoric you hear — that they can’t do the job, can’t do this, can’t do that — that was the same thing they said about African-Americans coming on the job,” said McBee, who is black. “The truth of the matter is there’s a lot of women on the job stronger than the average guy on the job.”
The first African-American male firefighters were appointed in the 1890s, said TFD Public Information Officer Matthew Hertzfeld.
“I’d like to see more people of color on the department,” McBee said. “I’m an advocate for minorities — black and brown and women, especially women of color.”
Lt. Kevin Goolsby has four sons, but it was his only daughter Komako who followed in his footsteps by joining TFD with the Class of 2006.
Goolsby, 38, is one of TFD’s three black female firefighters. She thinks part of the reason there are so few black women is the lack of role models. She’s trying to change that by doing community presentations and leading tours at the Toledo Firefighters Museum.
It doesn’t help that many people refer to firefighters as firemen, a pet peeve of Goolsby’s.
“I’m not a fireman. I’m a firefighter,” Goolsby said. “Even in books, there are men with fire helmets, men on fire trucks. We want to change that and through these small efforts I believe it will change. … [Girls] have to see us to want to do it and to want to be a part of it.”
Goolsby and her father were assigned to the same station and occasionally went on calls together. He retired last year after 31 years with TFD.
“It was awesome,” Goolsby said of working together. “Indescribable.”
Recalling a South Toledo fire in which a woman died after being pulled from the house, Goolsby, a trained surgical tech, said one of the toughest lessons she had to learn is she can’t save everyone.
“I was just beside myself,” Goolsby said. “I thought, ‘Wow, as fast as we got here and as fast as we got in that house, we couldn’t save her.’ We’re talking eight to nine minutes. So I beat myself up pretty bad about it.
“But the chief said something really important to me. He said, ‘It’s not your job to save that lady. Her life is out of your hands.’ … Now every run we go on, I look at it like it is my job to do my job, but I am not God. I can’t save everybody. And that takes some getting used to, because as firefighters, that’s all we want to do.”
Because a woman’s success or failure tends to reflect on all the other women on the job, Goolsby said many female firefighters feel pressure to be perfect.
“[Aldrich] would tell me, ‘It’s not good enough for you to get a 70 [percent], just because 70 is all you need to pass. You, as a female, need to make sure you get a 95,’” Goolsby said. “That way you can never be questioned.”
Goolsby said her father’s reputation helped her to some extent.
“Just by his reputation, the guys gave me a chance,” Goolsby said. “But one thing my father instilled in me as a little girl, whether I became a firefighter or not, is you have nothing to prove, only to yourself.”
Women of Courage
Women of Courage organizers said the group’s focus is on women, but celebrates all people of courage.
“We are all courageous in our own way, but firefighters take it in a different direction,” said Kim Hood, a TFD firefighter since 1996. “It takes a very special personality to become a firefighter.”
Another organizer, Gina Shubeta, a TFD firefighter since 2001, said the main goal is to “recognize diversity and embrace equality.”
“We are going to continue to recognize the importance of women, diversity and equality on our department to bring forth greater unity amongst members to better serve the citizens of Toledo,” Shubeta said. “We recognize that there will still be challenges and some of the many goals will be to educate and move forward into a direction of harmony with all our brothers and sisters.”
The group is selling Women of Courage T-shirts for $15 and patches for $10. Funds raised will benefit the Toledo Firefighters Local 92 Charities and the Toledo Firefighters Museum. To order, email email@example.com.
Aldrich, who plans to retire next year, said she still loves the job.
“It’s been one heck of a ride. There’s been ups and downs but it’s been a great ride for 30 years and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people,” she said. “Bumps in the road only make us stronger. We’re here and we’re here to stay.”
Tags: Aldrich, Assistant Chief Phillip Cervantes, Barb Aldrich, Battalion Chief Dennis Facer, Battalion Chief Gerald Takats, Battalion Chief Sally Glombowski, Chief Luis Santiago, Chief William Winkle, Christine Armstrong, Deborah Leonard, Deputy Chief Thomas Jaksetic, Dorothy Lopez, EMT, FEAT — First Encounter Acceptance Test, female firefighters, Geraldine McCalland, Gina Shubeta, Jennifer Wilson, Kathryn Balogh Mayer, Kim Hood, Komako Goolsby, Lt. Kevin Goolsby, Mark McBee, Mayor D. Michael Collins, paramedic, police officer, Rebecca Williams, Sheila Layson, TFD, Tim Ross, Toledo Fire & Rescue Department, Women of Courage event