Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Idaho's first woman firefighter retires

Thompson to return to part-time status

Express Staff Writer

Terry Thompson

Despite her official retirement, the emergency scanner was still chirping at Terry Thompson's house when she accepted a request for an interview about her career as the first career female firefighter in the Wood River Valley and in the state.

"It's been marvelous for me," Thompson said, explaining that she is not entirely quitting. "It's such an amazing experience. I can't quit cold turkey. You have to slow down. Being on call for help all the time and being able to fix it most of the time is an amazing thing to be able to do."

After a three-month leave she plans to return as she started her career in 1987, as a paid on-call volunteer. It is a career she discovered after working as a crisis hotline volunteer and a 911 dispatcher.

"She's retired from a career position," said her boss, Wood River Fire and Rescue Chief Bart Lassman. "She became the first woman firefighter in the state of Idaho to be hired as a career firefighter."

Other women had found jobs as career full time paramedics and emergency medical technicians, but Thompson was the first female firefighter, hired in 1992 when she was selected from five other candidates to fill a career position.

"I don't know if we opened the door for a lot of departments, but shortly after that the city of Boise hired their first woman," Lassman said. "She had a lot of responsibility that I put on her, but she put day to day responsibilities aside to mentor up and coming subordinates."

One of Thompson's many responsibilities was to train new EMTs. Lassman said, "She would drop everything just to train them. It's a balance, but she was still able to get her duties completed by the end of the day. Terry always slept with one eye open. She was the hardest working and I'll miss her for that. We'll get her back, but we won't get her back in the capacity that we had her."

When Thompson returns as a paid on-call volunteer, she said in some ways the work is more difficult.

Volunteers have to study more since they are not working as much, Thompson said. "They have less responsibility, but we couldn't do it without them."

Thompson said she has had an excellent experience working in what has traditionally been a man's world and that today there are several full time women in the valley.

"I'd like to speak for all the women. It seems like it's very well accepted here. That whole (gender) thing is so fraught with ways of saying something wrong," Thompson said, giving the issue her two cents anyway. "I know a lot of men in this field who are extremely sensitive to people. (The career) works very well for women as well as men. Of course, most of the men are stronger than I am."

Each year during agility tests firefighters must pull water charged hose line a certain number of feet, simulate breaking into a roof using axes, take 24-foot extension ladders off of fire trucks, put them back up, and pull a 160 pound dummy about 100 feet.

"All of this you do breathing air with a mask on," Thompson said. "It's pretty significant, but a woman is able to do it if she keeps fit. We have less strength than the men. We have to focus it more in order to keep up."

In addition to her physical ability, Lassman said he has a great deal of respect for the 60-year-old woman's ability to stand aside and let younger people fill her shoes. And the shoes are large since Thompson is also a rope rescue and swift water rescue specialist and a hazardous materials technician.

"In the years that she's been a career firefighter she has taken on a lot of different hats in the department," Lassman said. He commends Thompson for how well in the mid 1990s she made the difficult transition from line firefighter to captain, one of three who help run the department.

"You go from everybody being your friend to becoming a team leader. It is like a player to a coach in respect to the department," Lassman said. "You have a lot of responsibly to your people on your shift. You have to make a lot of decisions over the years. To take on that responsibility, Terry did that very well."

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