Monday, January 20, 2014

Female Fire Chief: An Interview and Character Template for Writers.


Fiona -
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?

Alicia - Sure, I'm Alicia Smith McCoy.
            I work full-time for an industrial
            fire department for a large
            pharmaceutical corporation
            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
        just imagine
        that hanging out at the fire
        department was
        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
         high school?

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.

Fiona - What happens to women in terms of pay
            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.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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1 comment:

  1. What a great lady and what a great interview! To Alicia, thank you for your many years of service as a Firefighter and Paramedic. You really are a true hero. To Fiona, thank you for another excellent post.