When Trisha Wolford was growing up, no one told her she couldn’t someday be a firefighter like her uncle and cousin.
But her single mother insisted she earn a college degree, just in case.
So Wolford majored in art, and upon graduation landed a marketing position.
Then she set out to follow her passion, applying to every fire department near her Maryland home.
Against long odds, she was offered not one firefighting job, but two.
Wolford went on to become the first female deputy fire chief of Bozeman’s 47-member fire department.
Now she’s settling in as assistant chief of the 340-member Spokane Fire Department – another first, genderwise.
But, at 39, Wolford has yet to reach the top rung of her career ladder.
“My aspirations are to be a fire chief,” she said.
During a lunch break in her corner office overlooking Riverside Avenue and Browne Street, Wolford discussed lessons learned waiting tables and bartending, high heels, and why “Rescue Me”-type TV dramas “don’t do firefighters any favors.”
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Wolford: Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois.
S-R: What were your interests in high school?
Wolford: I loved art and playing volleyball.
S-R: What was your first real job?
Wolford: My mom was office manager of a CPA firm, and when I was 14, I worked in her office, shredding files in a back hallway.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Wolford: All along, I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. When I was 2 or 3, I was photographed inside a turnout boot (worn by firefighters) at my uncle’s station.
S-R: Did any of your friends want to be firefighters?
S-R: What did your mom think?
Wolford: She said, “You can be a firefighter, but you’re going to go to college and get a degree, and then we’ll see what you want to do.” I attended Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia (90 minutes northwest of Washington, D.C.), and earned an art degree.
S-R: Then what?
Wolford: I worked for an East Coast restaurant chain called Ledo Pizza, doing marketing, graphic design, billboards and menus. But I still wanted to be a firefighter – wear the gear and do that job. So I started applying to every fire department in the region.
S-R: How hard is it to break into firefighting?
Wolford: It took me a year. In the jurisdiction where I eventually got hired – Anne Arundel County, Maryland – I tested with 800 people, and the next day another 800 people tested. Normally, the application period would be a month, but they topped out in three days. Out of 1,600 applicants, probably three or four classes of 50 people are hired.
S-R: What was it like being chosen?
Wolford: It was so exciting! After months of waiting, I found out I’d gotten onto Anne Arundel County on a Tuesday. Two days later, I got onto another department – Montgomery County.
S-R: Why do you think you were selected?
Wolford: My scores for physical fitness and the written test were very high. I worked really hard on that.
S-R: What were the demographics of your class?
Wolford: I think we started with 52 recruits, including eight females.
S-R: Are women recruits steered toward a particular specialty?
Wolford: The departments I’ve been with couldn’t care less about gender. Either you do the job or you don’t.
S-R: What were your initial responsibilities?
Wolford: After six months of recruit school and two or three more of EMT training, I was a probationary firefighter – a probie, a rookie, a boot – for nine months. Once I completed my book (demonstrated various proficiencies), I was assigned to a station.
S-R: During that process, did you ever encounter firefighters who were skeptical or uncomfortable working with you because you’re a woman?
Wolford: Because I’m a woman? No. But as a rookie, you always encounter people who are skeptical, and that’s good.
S-R: Were you pigeonholed early on?
Wolford: No. Joining a big department, I was lucky that there were lots of opportunities to try things or get on different teams.
S-R: What did you like most?
Wolford: The people I worked with. You can be assigned to the worst station in the toughest part of town, but if you have a good crew and a good officer, you’re like a family. You’ll have so much fun, and become a great asset to that neighborhood.
S-R: How long before you realized you had managerial potential?
Wolford: Two years in I was sent to paramedic school. Once I was back out in the field and had someone’s life in my hands, I had to take control and manage EMT’s with less training in order to work the scene better. If you don’t run your team well, everybody’s going to pay for it.
S-R: Did any skills learned either in team sports, marketing or other jobs transfer to firefighting?
Wolford: I waited tables and bartended all through college and beyond. The experience of working jobs where the money I earned was directly related to how nice I was and how well I communicated translated to how I deal with co-workers, patients or angry citizens.
S-R: What’s some good career advice you picked up along the way?
Wolford: Be humble and work hard.
S-R: How has the profession evolved since you became a firefighter?
Wolford: One of the biggest changes has been firefighters’ perspective of their own health and safety. The attitude used to be gung-ho – do anything and everything. Now the attitude is do it safe and do it better, because we want you to have those 20, 40, 60 years with your grandchildren and your spouse – all those things you worked so hard for. I think the awareness of balance is better.
S-R: Has the male-female ratio changed since you became a firefighter?
Wolford: Nationally, yes. When I got on the job, it was about 2 to 3 percent. We’re still in single digits nationally, but some departments are 12 to 15 percent female.
S-R: Has your gender caused co-workers to approach you with issues?
Wolford: Yes, although I hope it’s also because of my personality and ability to solve problems. And not only co-workers, but people in the community. I’ve gotten the comment, “It’s so nice to see a female firefighter on the crew. Would you mind being in the room with my grandma when they work on her?” It’s about comfort. And that’s the great thing about having diversity on any crew, whether black, white, male, female or religious.
S-R: When’s the last time you responded to a fire or an ambulance run?
Wolford: Three weeks ago, in Bozeman. I do ride-alongs, and was on the engine company.
S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?
Wolford: That you better know yourself well. We spend a lot of time making sure our crews and our community are OK. But to be content and do your job well, I think it’s important to know yourself.
S-R: What’s a typical question you get when someone finds out what you do?
Wolford: “How much does the gear weigh?”
S-R: And the answer?
Wolford: Between 50 and 70 pounds, depending on what emergency you’re responding to.
S-R: What’s entry-level pay for Spokane firefighters?
Wolford: Between $40,000 and $60,000, based on experience.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?
Wolford: Someone who’s confident but not cocky. (laugh) Maybe you shouldn’t put that in. How about confident, yet humble. Also athletic. Intellectual, because firefighting requires constant education. I’ve never gone more than four months without training. And most of all, passionate.
S-R: How would you want others to describe you?
Wolford: Caring – focused, listening, not distracted. Fun is important, because what we do is stressful on all different levels. I think integrity is everything. And driven. I am a driven person.
S-R: What’s your impression of TV shows about firefighters?
Wolford: Most of us think, “That’s nothing like what we do.” When you work hard to make a name for yourself, the last thing you want to see is “Rescue Me” portraying girls and wives in the firehouse screwing around.
S-R: What’s a typical day for you?
Wolford: I was up at 5 this morning. Ran 5 miles. In the office by 7. I’ll probably go home maybe at 6. I’m in a master’s program, so I usually work on that at home. But the other night I rode around with a battalion chief until 10:30, meeting crews.
S-R: How do you relax?
Wolford: My husband and I love to travel.
S-R: Any guilty pleasures?
Wolford: I’m an avid heel wearer and collector. I think I have about 90 pairs. I keep them in numbered containers, and have the photos on my iPad so I can scroll through and see which pair I want to wear when I’m not in uniform. Friends ask, “What number are you wearing today?”
S-R: You were in Bozeman two years. Now you’re here. Does the fact that you are passionate, multitalented and female make you an attractive candidate for some larger fire district eager to set a tone when hiring its next chief?
Wolford: I think it does. But I also feel strongly about making sure the fit is good on both sides.
S-R: So two years from now, might we open the newspaper and learn you’re moving on to a bigger department – Seattle, Portland, Sacramento?
Wolford: Anything is possible. (laugh) That’s part of the profession. My aspirations are to be a fire chief at some point in my career. I don’t necessarily see that happening in two years, but it is an option.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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