When we talk about women in firefighting, most people assume that this is a fairly recent achievement for females. But what if we told you women have actually been fighting fires for almost 200 years? Yep, it’s true. Ladies have had roles in firefighting since the 1800s.
The Earliest Accounts
Molly Williams, a slave in New York City, became a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11 around 1815. Williams went to the volunteer firehouse on shifts with owner Benjamin Aymar. She cooked and cleaned and tended to other odd duties around the firehouse on most shifts. In 1818, a call came in one night while she’d been caring for the rest of the crew who were stricken with the flu. She was the only one well enough to go. Lore says that she handled the pumper as well as any man on the crew, and after her success fighting this fire, she was named an unofficial member of the crew.
It’s assumed that many of the records of women in firefighting have simply been lost over the years, but some pop up in the 19th and 20th centuries in New Jersey and Connecticut. Between 1910 and 1920, Silver Spring, Maryland and Los Angeles, California both had functioning women’s volunteer fire companies. And in the late 1920s, Emma Vernell became a member of Westside Hose Company #1 after her firefighter husband died serving. She was the first woman recognized as a firefighter in New Jersey.
During World War II, as in many other fields, women covered much of the firefighting duties while the men were off at war. Two military fire departments in the state of Illinois were completely staffed by women for part of the war. It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that it became more common for women to join the ranks of volunteer fire departments.
The Earliest Career Female Firefighters
Sandra Forcier was hired as a Public Safety Officer, a combination police officer and firefighter, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1973. In March of 1974, Judith Livers joined the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia and became the first woman career firefighter in the world. Both Forcier and Livers served full careers and retired at the rank of battalion chief. The first known female fire chief in the U.S. was Ruth E. Capello. Capello was born in 1922 and became fire chief of the Butte Falls Fire Department in Butte Falls, Oregon in 1973. A few years later, the country saw women more frequently becoming career firefighters.
The National Fire Protection Agency reported there were some 1,160,450 career and voluntary firefighters in the United States in 2015. Only 7.3 percent of them were women, a slight increase over the 2014 statistics. Women have a proud and steady history of firefighting in the United States, and women throughout the country continue to write it daily.
Are you looking for a change? Here in Prince William County, the volunteer departments provide fire and emergency medical services to the County’s citizens and visitors during weekday evenings, weekends and holidays. Prince William County’s volunteer fire and rescue departments are seeking motivated individuals who have the desire to make a difference and provide an important service to their community. Learn more now.
- Posted by ATW
- On August 31, 2017
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