You’re 39 and you’ve got a big-shot job in public service with the clout, good salary, and benefits that go with it. Best of all, you’re next in line for a fat promotion.
So what do you do?
If you’re Linda Long, you take a hefty pay cut and start a new career at grunt level. And you ignore critics who think you're demented for letting go of a sure thing.
“I’ve been called crazy my whole life,” shrugs Long. “I’m used to it.”
On Monday, the Philadelphia Fire Department will appoint Long, 52, as a battalion chief. She’ll be the first female ever to hold the title, in a 2,500-member department that is 88 percent male.
Well, go, sisterhood! Still, what I find more noteworthy than Long’s gender is that she had the guts to zig professionally when it would’ve been safer to zag. Who’s brave enough to do that these days?
Long, who grew up in Olney and moved to Ambler at 16, wanted to be a firefighter since she saw her first red truck during a childhood visit to a fire station.
At 18, she tried to join the Fort Washington Volunteer Fire Company but was turned down on a technicality that appeared to hide the real reason she was rejected: She was female.
When the rejection made news, the Community Ambulance Association of Ambler offered to train her as an EMT. She was with them for so long – 10 years – they paid for her to become a certified paramedic. She eventually joined the Wissahickon Volunteer Fire Company as their first female firefighter.
But she longed to fight fires in Philly. She needed to be a city resident to apply for the job, though. So in 1990, she joined the Philly Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services division as a paramedic, whose new hires were given a year to move into the city.
“I thought that eventually I’d go to the fire academy,” she says.
But darn if she didn’t keep getting promoted. By the time she made paramedic captain in 1997, she’d impressed subordinates and superiors with her humble work ethic and responsive leadership.
“She was hands-on,” says Fire Battalion Chief Joe Andrews. “She would even go on medical runs with us, which was unusual” for brass, and still is.
In 2003, when Long turned 39, she had a midlife reckoning: She would never feel fulfilled if she didn’t pursue her childhood dream of being a Philly firefighter. But it would require her starting from the bottom, just as she had as a paramedic. True, she’d hang on to her earned vacation and seniority, but her salary would be half of what she earned as a captain.
Her colleagues thought she’d spazzed. One of them worked out how many years it would take Long to earn her way back to a captain’s paycheck (seven!). Another warned she’d never get promoted, anyway, since she’d be branded by brass as unstable.
Long was undeterred.
“I was running out of time,” she says. “If I didn’t do it at 39, I sure wasn’t going to do it at 49.”
Her 16 weeks at the Philadelphia Fire Academy were grueling. She was one of only 10 women in the class of 94 recruits (the women remain one another’s cheerleaders), and she was older than almost everyone by at least a decade. It had also been 15 years since she’d donned 80 pounds of protective gear and run into a fire – “and I hate to run,” Long says.
After graduation, she worked at busy firehouses in West Philly, Port Richmond, and Kensington, earning respect and promotions along the way. She is now a captain in the Hazardous Materials Administrative Unit but is hoping, after her promotion to battalion chief, that she’ll be back in the field.
“It took a lot of guts for her to cross over from EMS and go back up through the ranks,” says Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel. “That’s a real accomplishment. There’s no question she’s earned this appointment.”
So what do her former naysayers make of her now?
“They say, ‘Oh, I get it! You had a plan!’ ” laughs Long. “Well, of course I had a plan. You don’t do something like this on a whim.”
It was a trial by fire. And she won.