I was standing in the kitchen at a one-year-old's birthday party, stuffing a hot-pink, icing-covered cupcake in my mouth, talking about strong female characters. My lament being that, while there were good females who dealt in a strong way with a crisis, there weren't as many women serving in a
leadership role in the stories that I have been reading lately. Where were the female head detectives,
presidents of industry, and intelligence chiefs? That conversation lead me to meeting Alicia.
Welcome to ThrillWriting Alicia! Would you take a moment and introduce yourself to my readers
and tell them what you do for a living?
I work full-time for an industrial
fire department for a large
where I am a lieutenant.
I also work for the Village of
Winthrop Harbor Fire
Department as an Assistant
Fiona - Alicia has been putting out
flames for over 30 years!
It's unusual to find a female
firefighter now, how in the
world did you get started in
the business 30 years ago?
Alicia - I come from a family line of firefighters, my great-great uncle, a firefighter for the City of Chicago
died in the line of duty at a stable fire in 1898. It is family history that his sister last saw him as the
truck company flew by on the way to the fire and he waved to her. My father joined Winthrop Harbor
Volunteer Fire Department and advanced through the ranks becoming Chief, while I was in high
school. The close knit fire department family was a large part of my formative years, my brothers
and I idolized the young firefighters, and loved to hang around the fire house and be a part of the fun.
Fiona - Yes, as a teen-aged girl, I can
that hanging out at the fire
pretty darned fabulous. LOL!
Alicia - I knew since I was a sophomore in high
school that I wanted to be a firefighter, prior
to that I just wanted to marry a fireman.
Fiona - That was quite a leap! How did that go over
with your family? Were they supportive?
Alicia - Women were not a part of the firefighting team, any women who wanted to be associated with the
fire department became a part of the Ladies Auxiliary, a support group that raised funds, provided
food, snacks, drinks and warming areas at lengthy fires. Much like the MESS Canteen does now.
While I was growing up I envisioned myself performing those duties, but a major transformation was
taking place across the country. Women were doing things they had not done before,
breaking in to male dominated professions and organizations. While I was in high school, two young
women joined the Winthrop Harbor Fire Department, the department needed medically trained
personnel, and these two filled that need and also broke down some barriers that I didn’t even realize
existed! They showed me that I didn’t have to support, I could be! I spoke with my mother of my
ambitions, to become a fire fighter and eventually work as an arson investigator,
I had even researched how and where I could get a college degree. She was willing to provide the
emotional support and soften the “blow” to my father that his darling daughter could and would
become something he held dear.
Fiona - With your parents' blessing, you joined right out of
Alicia - I joined Winthrop Harbor fresh out of high school in fact
the Monday after I graduated, I was down at the station
signing up. Back then there was a 6 month probationary
period and you learned as you went, I was immediately
enrolled in an EMT class, and soon was certified.
As the firefighting certifications became more prominent
I took those classes and tests. The rest, as they say,
is history. I started working full time at
Fort Sheridan Fire Department; I worked for the government
transferring to Great Lakes Naval Training station, and then
back to Fort Sheridan as promotions became available.
Fiona - To be such a trail-blazer for women, you have to have a strong personality.
Can you tell me which of your personalty traits you've relied on most?
Alicia - When I was younger I never thought about danger or consequences - I just did.
Mentally, the toughness comes from just doing.
Fiona - I'm wondering how the men reacted to you as a woman.
Alicia - I was always comfortable around guys,
I was a tomboy, and I never felt odd or out
of place with the guys I worked with,
most guys liked me, and if they didn’t like
me, I figured, “Hey you can’t get along
with everybody!” I just chose not to see any
hardship do to my femaleness. This was not
so for a lot of women though, women
I knew and was friends with.
Fiona - Were there many other women
who shared you career choice? How did
you support each other?
Alicia - As a group some of us knew each other, but we didn’t really hang out or share stories
or problems, it wasn’t the type of women we were. I always took notice and cheered and
applauded for female firsts from others I knew or departments in the county got their first
full-timer. On a state level our numbers were growing but the longevity of women really stood
out in my mind, there were very few with more than 15 years and we tended not to associate
when we were with other male firefighters, kind of like you didn’t want to attract attention.
I talked with a group of other career women I knew, and we decided we needed to provide
more support and camaraderie to the women in our state and Fire Service Women of Illinois was
born. I am proud of this organization - how it has grown, and what it has become. One of the
things it does is to showcase women with lengthy careers in the fire service in Illinois.
In Lake County, I have also had the opportunity to know and work with many fine firefighters
and officers that happen to be women. Like the rest of the country our numbers have increased too.
I know parts of some of their stories, and I am proud of the achievements of my sisters,
we now have Lieutenants, Captains, Battalion Chiefs and even a Chief.
Fiona - Now, you took some time off from fire fighting because of your child - surely you didn't
fight fires when you were pregnant.
Alicia - With my first pregnancy, I had to use all of my sick leave and vacation time. My chief was a
jerk. With my second pregnancy, I was working in an industry - companies are far more
supportive. With both pregnancies, it was important to inform them as soon as I knew. Then
they let me make the choice about staying on the job.
Now, most women choose to go on pregnancy leave. There were no heat studies done at the time I
was pregnant with either of my kids. I stopped fire fighting at four months with my first pregnancy
and six months with my second. If I did it again, I would stop earlier.
The heat studies show it is horrible [for the fetus] in the first trimester.
Fiona - Oh, dear. But your children are beautiful, strong, and smart - so no need to beat yourself up.
Alicia - There, but for the grace of God, go I. Lucky, I guess. My kids are fine.
and prestige/moving up the ladder if they
become moms and need to take leave?
Would that be a plotting point for young
heroines - the difficult decision
about if and when to have a family or
maintain their career?
Alicia - It can be detrimental to your career. I know
a lot of women who quit full-time positions
because there is very little pregnancy support.
Fiona - Boo!
Alicia - Luckily, now a lot of departments have developed pregnancy policies which
state that they can't get rid of you or give away your job if you are pregnant.
Fiona - Good! So progress.
Alicia - Yes. It took 19 years! We in the service
now are paving the way, making things
better for the next
generation who come along.
Fiona - My readers can't see this but your avatar is
of a lady with a pink bouffant. How do you
blend being a girl and being a firefighter?
And what about professionalism and
male/female dynamics at work?
Alicia - With FSWI we have had many
regarding this topic. At work you need to be professional,
and we always encourage the younger women to act like
professionals - to walk away from banter that is personal between them and a guy. If they want a
relationship it has to take place away from the job site. There are too many problems that arise
when people flirt or act inappropriately. Feelings get hurt or misconstrued. Men can be jerks
and women can be vindictive. We have training now a days that keeps that kind of behavior at bay.
Everyone is supposed to treat others like you mother/father/sister/brother ...
but there are still problems.
Also, men want to be your friend and hangout, but it is hard to socialize with the wives because
the guys often exclude you when the wives are around and sometimes the wives are hard to deal
with. It is easier to socialize with the part-time department, because we see more of the families.
And the wives and families know more about you. This means they are less likely to have
the wife/you-as-the-other-woman type feelings. Some wives get jealous like that. When your
with someone for 24 hours a day, sometimes you can get comfortable and know personal things
about the other people you work with. Wives can feel that you know more about their
husbands than they do. It can be hard, and can lead to shunning by other wives.
I always try to make everything professional and that helps.
Fiona - Very interesting points! Besides navigating those issues,
what is the hardest part of your job?
Alicia - Life and death stuff, definitely children. An eighteen-
month-old was found dead in his crib by his
mother. That screwed with my brain for years.
Fiona - Oh, I'm so sorry. You were there as a paramedic?
Alicia - Yes, I was first on the scene, they lived by my house,
and I went right there because they said
the baby was not breathing.
Fiona - As the mother of four let me say that is my nightmare.
Alicia - Me too. I hadn't had kids yet but was newly married. That
mother's screams haunt me to this day
if I think about it. It has always made me thankful for everything about my kids.
Fiona - Very emotionally difficult job and physically difficult too.
Alicia - The job is physically hard but that is easy to recover from - and
what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Fiona - Amen, sister. Of course it also makes you want a vacation and a Cosmo. I am trampling
over our allotted time so let me ask a ThrillWriting traditional question - please tell us
about your favorite scar.
Alicia - I have no visible scars now. When I first started, we wore these gloves called "fire ball gloves", and I
would get steam burns. For a while I had scars on my hands from them. But now, better equipment
is available and they took those gloves off the market.
Fiona - A HUGE thank you to Alicia for her candor and insights.