‘I Was Able to Do the Job as Well as Anyone’

By Martha Rees, Piermont Fire Department

I grew up in a small town. When the fire whistle sounded for a fire, the town would show up at the fire scene to watch the amazing people fight the fire. I remember telling my father I wanted to be a firefighter. He just smiled and said, “Maybe someday.”

In 1978, my father joined the volunteer fire department and became one of only two EMTs in the department. When I turned 16, I talked him into letting me put in my application. He allowed it just to humor me. He really didn’t think I would get voted in. It was 1980 and I was a female. There were no females in the fire department in my county of 26 volunteer fire departments. I got a few no votes, but I did get in. I was told that I was only allowed to ride the ambulance. I got my EMT certification and was happy for a little while.

My fire department also had an underwater rescue team. It was announced at our monthly meeting that because of the lack of trained divers, we might lose the rescue team. I was a lifeguard and a water safety instructor. I would love the chance to be on the rescue team. Well, to discourage me, they told me I couldn’t because I hadn’t completed the firefighter course. I wasn’t about to give up, so I enrolled in the course.

I was given turnout gear and boots that were five sizes too big. I arrived at the class with all men giving me funny looks. As I continued showing up week after week, the instructor would call on me for all the answers and choose me to be the first to demonstrate things. He would say to the men who tried to help me “let her do it by herself.” I remember the night where I had to climb the 75-foot ladder. I would start up the ladder, but my boots were so big they would fall off. The instructor sent someone to get me smaller boots and helmet. I got my smaller boots and went right up that ladder!

On the last night of class, the instructor told all the men that it may have seemed like he was picking on me, but he wanted to prove to the class that I was able to do the job as well as the men in my class. I went on to become a rescue diver, firefighter, high-angle rescue and also captain by the time I was 22. At 13 years old, my daughter joined the fire department’s Explorer team that trains young teens how to be a firefighter. I moved away from Piermont, but still remain a life member. The Piermont Fire Department will always be my family and someday I hope to move back to Piermont and continue my service to the volunteer fire department.