Battalion Chief Christine N. Woodard and Master Technician Barbara G. Schirmacher of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department have been honored for their 25 years of service. Today there are approximately 145 women firefighters in the Department.
They’ve faced issues such as sexual harassment and the inability to be taken seriously along with the usual issues one faces during the start of a new career — such as frustration and stress.
Woodard and Schirmacher have learned to balance motherhood and a full-time, 56-hour per week job. “I have two jobs: working as a firefighter and I also have three teenagers. They overlap and intertwine. Being a single parent made it difficult at times, it was hard to be there with my children during the emergency situations because I had to fulfill my duty for the community,” said Woodard.
Currently Woodard is a battalion chief at EMS Operations, but also oversees all of the EMS care and training during her shifts. Schirmacher is a master technician, which serves as the shift leader’s “right hand man,” at the Great Falls fire station, Station 12. Schirmacher has also been associated with the FEMA OFDA team, the Pentagon response team and the Oklahoma City response.
Woodard and Schirmacher both belonged to the 56th recruit school. Approximately 40 people started the school, 32 graduated and 18 are still with the department 25 years later. Retirement in the Fire and Rescue Department begins at 20 years and full retirement is offered at the 25-year mark but both women plan to continue working.
What was your inspiration for becoming a firefighter? Did you always want to be one?
WOODARD: I had just received my teaching degree in physical education and was very interested in the subject of anatomy so I joined the paramedic training program. The paramedic training is closely aligned with the firefighter training. I loved the medical portion of it; it was like a sporting event because there was fitness and exhilaration. Everything about it I loved. Firefighting slowly evolved into my career.
SCHIRMACHER: I never had any aspirations for being a firefighter. The paramedic training is very closely tied with the firefighter training and so when I entered recruit school I became more interested in becoming a firefighter. But I never grew up wanting to be a firefighter — that was a boy’s dream.
Do you have any relatives who are firefighters?
WOODARD: Not specifically firefighters but my father and mother were both naval officers.
SCHIRMACHER: No, I was the first one to enter the field.
Being a woman, how difficult was it for you at the beginning of your career? What kind of issues did you face?
WOODARD: Everybody runs into problems. Every gender and every nationality faces issues but you have to walk through them. I’m not any more special than anybody else.
After my first year in the job there were monumental changes made for both men and women. Since, there have been significant changes to bring the department into the 21st century.
SCHIRMACHER: Yes, it was really difficult. There was sexual harassment and they wanted me to fail. It’s a man’s world and we [women] were intruders and they didn’t want to see their world change.
Do you believe times have changed? Would you say that it is far easier for women to become firefighters or which issues do you believe that they still face today?
WOODARD: Along with the congratulations given to both Schirmacher and myself, it was a celebration for the department. The department has grown significantly as far as working side by side with women is concerned. Ninety-nine percent of the people that I worked with in the past had never worked with a woman; it was huge difference for them. But I would just tell them that they had in fact taken orders from women before — their wives and mothers. After realizing the truth in my statement they felt more comfortable. But 99 percent of the time men and women are treated the same today.
SCHIRMACHER: Yes, things have changed. There are more opportunities to practice prior to the exam. The physical part of the entrance has changed — before it was largely based on upper body strength but now it is more jobs-related.
What would be your words of wisdom for future or current women firefighters?
WOODARD: Find a mentor. Team up with somebody that isn’t your friend and that can look at you objectively. And when you are having a tough time, don’t go on the road, instead look for somebody to talk to. Somebody else in the department has probably already dealt with a similar issue. Don’t try and deal with it yourself.
SCHIRMACHER: It’s a very rewarding job and you definitely need to stay fit. I can’t think of anything better. The pay is not all that great but it’s better than it was.ºBut, come into it with the right reasons. Come in with the interest to serve 25 years. You really have to love the job; many people get into it for the wrong reasons.
What do you like to do with your spare time?
WOODARD: I like home construction, guns, dance, Appalachian clogging and cross-stitching. The diversity of my activities is clearly not based on gender. Also all of my children play sports so I go watch them play all the time.
SCHIRMACHER: I love training horses with my daughter. I’m also a part of the 4-H club [a youth-club that also has a horse program].