WFS was contacted in 1999 by a woman named Louise Schrier, who is a firefighter and public relations officer for the Whitwell Volunteer Fire Department in southeastern Tennessee. As correspondence went back and forth between Ms. Schrier and WFS, a very engaging and compelling picture of her department, and the people in it, emerged. With her permission, her correspondence was edited into this article.
Whitwell is a growing town of about 2500 people located northwest of Chattanooga. Its setting is a natural rift valley, of which there are only two in the world. It is a beautiful area with a wide diversity of flora due to the variety of elevations between the valley floor and the surrounding mountains.
Because of these differences, when someone comes to visit, they end up coming back to stay. I myself was only passing through with my husband, Donald, six years ago, and I still remember what I told him. I said, "Sell the house. This is where I want to grow old." Now almost all of my family is here.
This town is growing, like it or not, and we need to update our fire department to handle this growth. The Whitwell Volunteer Fire Department has been in existence for forty years this summer, having been formed on July 8, 1959. We handle a lot of brush fires, as well as house fires and trailer fires. There have been several car fires of late, but I guess the brush fires have been the worst.
Debbie Suggs is our chief. She is 38 years old, and works for her father as chief mechanic on his 18-wheelers. Debbie has worked for her dad as long as anyone I know can remember. Most of the truckers in the area know her as "Tag-A-Long," because when she was younger, as long as Daddy went, she was going too. Now she pretty much runs most of the business.
Deb is one of the hardest-working people I have ever met. She is a very caring person, and she takes good care of her family. Her mom had a lung transplant a few years ago and now has to go to Nashville for medical treatments several times a month; Debbie is her wheels to Nashville, which is 2-3 hours away.
She joined the department in 1997 because her brother-in-law was the chief at the time and both of the trucks were down. They could not get the city to fix them, so Bobby ask her to join and do maintenance on the trucks so they could use at least one of them. So Deb joined, and before she knew it she was taking all kinds of training in firefighting, at least all that was offered here then.
Between the time the old chief left and Debbie took office, there were four men who tried to be chief. But once Debbie stepped into the shoes, the position was filled, even though the department was all men save Deb and Rocky.
Rocky Meeks is our assistant chief and an EMT. She is married to Ryan Meeks, our deputy chief and also Whitwell's police chief. Rocky came to the department a little over a year ago. She came from a neighboring department due to lack of training being offered and a few rubs with people and their egos. This is where she and Ryan met and decided to become partners in life as well as on the fire department. They were married in the fire hall in their uniforms and with their family of fellow firefighters. Rocky is 32 and has two children by another marriage. I call her Mighty Mouse because of the way she handles herself at fires.
Deb got the men working together. There were only six people involved in the department when my son, Franklin Pierce, and his wife, Melinda, joined. They joined together after my husband invited them to a meeting and they got to watch a barrel burn. That was it for them: they were bitten by the bug. I guess Mel got into it a little more than her husband, due on the most part because she could get to a lot more of the meetings and the trainings. In 1998-1999 Melinda was our Rookie of the Year. I have to say that being on the department has changed her a lot, and it has been for the better. She has grown into a rather strong person with a mind of her own and the ability to do the job. Compared to the quiet little person who would not even look you in the eyes when she spoke to you before, it is wonderful.
With my husband already on the department, guess what: that left me alone, so I joined to be with them. I loved it right away. Then my niece, April , moved here from New Jersey. She is 22 years of age and a single mother of one son. When she came here in February, she didn't know anyone, and she was dealing with a great many feelings. She had just gotten out of a very bad relationship, and her sense of self-worth was about as low as it could be. You know, when you are told every day you aren't worth anything and no one will ever want you, you will believe it after a while. I told her, "Come to a meeting."
She came to the meeting one night, and at the very next meeting, she was ready to join. She was voted in and became one of us. She works hard, and she has really changed the way she carries herself: she has pride now. We all took her in, and we have dubbed her Cujo cause she can be a real mad dog if you push her into a corner. She is also our tallest woman on the squad at 5 feet 11 inches. She can handle just about anything that gets thrown at her -- she didn't know that before.
That only leaves me, and all I can tell you is, I handle all public relations for the department because I don't get mad easily. I joined the department in January. I have been a CNA for about twelve years. I no longer work in a hospital or nursing-home setting, and do only private duty now. At 42, I am the oldest woman on the squad. I came to be on the squad because I wanted to be with my husband, who has been a firefighter for all of the fourteen years we have been together. He works on the river on the barges, and is gone twenty days a month. When he comes home, I want to be with him as much as I can, so I joined thinking that it was only for that reason.
By the end of my first meeting, I knew I should have done this years ago. I began to think about the difference I could make in other peoples lives if I tried, so here I am. And now when Donald is out on the river at work, I have friends and family at the fire hall. I would guess I am everyone's driving force. You simply can't tell me we can't do something, because it is like waving a red flag at a bull. I will find a way! If we need it, somehow I'll push and shove until someone gives in.
That is how I came to you all for help. The city will not help us get what we need, and I can't stand sending our people into a fire in boots too big and gear that is falling to pieces. It is not safe. April needs engineer boots because they are cut low and her calves are 18-3/4 inches around. The only boots we have that she can wear are size 11. That is just one of the small problems we face at every fire.
In less than two years, our department has grown to twelve members, despite a lot that was thrown in our path to fall over. We have a total of five female firefighters. We also have three other ladies who help us out with public relations and odd jobs when we need them. Deb Johnson is the mother of one of our firefighters, Jeff Johnson, and Nancy Powell, who is Darrell Powell's wife, as well as Chris Richards, who is April's mother. They are a lot of help when we are short-handed.
The City Board has seen fit to throw everything possible in our way. I myself can not understand it. We get a lot of trash from them about all these women being on the squad, but they are the ones giving up their time and taking all the chances. No one else wants to do this job, so why does it upset these people so to have women do it? We also have seven men on the squad, and all in all they seem to be fine with things. We would love to have a few more good men on our squad, but they seem to be too busy elsewhere.
I do not think I will ever understand why people must think about the female gender as weaker. We can keep our homes, raise our families, work all day and still be ready to handle whatever comes our way. Be it fire, an emergency with a child, or a broken pipe at home, we always manage.
The City does not give our department very much money to maintain our equipment: less than $7000 a year. We are working with trucks that are falling apart and gear that would make you laugh. The most recent thing has been to ask why we should have to do mutual aid calls for other departments. Is that a stupid question, or what? We have to help them if they are to help us. Plus one of the city commissioners stated at the other night's meeting that she thought it was a waste for us to use the hydrants, because the city has to pay to process this water. I am not making this up -- it is in the minutes of the meetings. Where do these people come from?
We do our best, but now they are throwing us another curve. We have to get certified in at least Firefighter I and II. We really want to do this, and we are trying to raise the money because the city will not help. Our problem is that new books cost $42 each, and the course costs $102. To get Firefighter III training, we will have to go to another town three hours from here, which will take three days and cost $69. The total cost comes to $213 per person. How can we justify this expense, when our equipment is falling apart?
We are trying to raise our own money, and we have raised a little, but as I have said, we need so much on our trucks. On top of all this, we have two people on the City Board who have said women have no business on the department, and they will not help until we are gone. Well, we are not going anywhere, but the amount of bull we are receiving lately is getting to be too much. We have been told it looks like the city is running a whorehouse, with all these women on the fire department.
We have decided that we could do Firefighter I and II now, and then later this year we can go and get III. Each firefighter said they would help out with fundraisers, and we will each cover our own room expenses when we go for the out-of-town training later this year.
We really want to get certified. It will maybe get the people on the Board to understand that we mean to do this, with their help or without it. The women and men on the fire department are good people, and we work very hard at our lives; the comments and lack of support we are getting are not fair.
Public Relations Officer
Whitwell Volunteer Fire Dept.
13671 Highway 28
Whitwell TN 37397
This article originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of FireWork. It is copyright © 1999 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without permission
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE