Thursday, September 29, 2011

The End of a Trail Blazing Career Today

When Fire Fighter Pam Foltz stepped into the Glen Echo fire station almost 32 years ago, she did not think of herself as a trail blazer.  However, when she set foot in the station, she became the first career female fire fighter hired in Montgomery County.  As a matter of fact she was one of only 25 career female fire fighters nationwide!

Now, nearly 32 years later, Pam will be working her last shift on September 29 at Silver Spring Fire Station #1 far exceeding a promise she made to several fire department leaders, who gave her the opportunity, that she would work at least 25 years – which was the number of years required for full retirement.

Pam was inspired to join the fire service by several neighbors in her Fairfax County neighborhood who were volunteer fire fighters.  Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s many volunteer members would respond to calls for help directly from their home.  After watching this for many years, and interacting with the neighbors, Pam knew that “she just wanted to do this.”

After graduating from Falls Church High School, Pam went away to college and the hope was she would become a school teacher.  However the tug to become a fire fighter was too great and after returning home her first year she announced to her parents that she was quitting school to become a career fire fighter.  Reaction in the Foltz household was mixed as her Mom told her to “go get your dream” while Dad was just a little bit upset.

Pam then proceeded to apply to several area fire departments including DC, Arlington, Fairfax, and Montgomery County.  It was Montgomery County who called first and after successfully passing the physical agility test, she was eventually offered a position by Glen Echo.  Note: back then, each volunteer corporation hired their own career fire fighters to augment volunteer members who worked their regular jobs during the day.  It was then off to the Public Safety Training Academy (PSTA) where she trained with 14 other recruits from around the County.

At the PSTA Pam encountered a few obstacles.  Pam stated, “Unlike now, there were no female facilities at the PSTA to include bathrooms or locker rooms.  I could not shower and clean up after training fires like my male peers.  There was no place to store my clothes.  I went home each and every day very dirty and smelly and had to carry everything with me.”

It was there where she also learned that perhaps some of the male fire fighters were not too happy to have her around.  As Pam relays, “The instructors did not want me there.  Several members of a recruit class that had started a few weeks earlier let me know that the instructors were talking about trying to stoke the training fires to a point where it would maybe burn me just enough and thus, hopefully, would cause me to quit.  What they did not realize is that it actually made me even more determined to complete the training and stay on.”

Some of the challenges Pam faced when getting to the fire station included having to wear uniforms tailored for men and having to adhere to male grooming standards.  The leadership at Glen Echo came to her and gave her two options for sleeping arrangements when she was working the night shift – sleep in the same dorm room as the men or they would convert a small administrative office into her own personal dorm room.  In response, Pam stated that “she wanted to be treated just like everyone else,” and opted to sleep in one of the beds in the dorm room.

The challenges were not confined to the fire station and even Pam alone.  Pam was not the only unique, at the time, fire fighter assigned to the Glen Echo station.  Also there was the first African American fire fighter and the two become fast friends – a friendship that lasts to this day.  Pam recalled, “We would sometimes be on the ambulance together and the residents had really never seen a female or African American fire fighter.  There were actually times we would go knock on the door of the house that had requested help and the residents would refuse to let us in.”

As time went on, more female fire fighters joined the departments throughout the county and then the county as a whole in 1988 as all career fire fighters fell under one county department.  Asked what has changed over 32 years for women Pam mentioned, “Montgomery County was actually very progressive for the time.  Female tailored clothing was provided, the PSTA built a female locker room, female grooming standards were developed, and overall guidelines and standards were developed related to female fire fighters.  Many fire departments from across the country that had just begun to hire women fire fighters actually sought out Montgomery County for advice and guidelines.”

When asked about mentors considering she was a rare breed when she first started, Pam identified several male fire fighters who really believed in her and helped her tremendously.  Now retired members Lt. Dicky Arnold, Lt. Dan Irvine (whose son is a current MCFRS member), and Fire Fighter Mike Simmons were a few to come to mind.  Pam also credits then Glen Echo Chief Tappen with getting her to network with other female fire fighters from across the country by paying her way to attend a then relatively new organization called Women in the Fire Service.

So what got her through the rough times and led her to such a long and rewarding career?  Pam states that, “One big key was to pick and choose my battles.  I was mainly able to let a lot of stuff just roll off my back and I moved on.  Did not complain or whine.  That was huge!  Adaptability was another big one.  The combination of both really helped me with my male peers which led to a very tight-knit and supportive family like group.”

And one big one was the earlier mentioned promise she made to several then fire service leaders all of whom are now deceased.  “I would like to think they would be very, very proud of me today,” said Pam.

One highlight of Pam’s career came in the late ‘90’s when one day, at Silver Spring Station #1, there were 5 female fire fighters on duty at once!  The topper was the ladder truck that particular day had an all female crew which Pam suspects was the first time something like that had every occurred.

When asked what she would miss most Pam stated without hesitation, “The people I work with!  I will also miss going on emergency calls and the fact that every new shift was something different.  No two days were ever alike.”

As for future plans, Pam indicated that “I am going to take some time to get to know myself a little bit better.  Take time off for me and perhaps do some travelling.  My parents are also elderly and have medical issues so I plan to spend some time with them as well.”

Congratulations Pam on a trail blazing career!  You are a pioneer and one many women in the fire service today here in Montgomery County, as well as across the country, owe a bit of gratitude too.

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