Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Has ax, will shatter glass ceilings

LINDA LONG, 49, first wanted to be a firefighter in kindergarten, when her class took a field trip to a firehouse and she saw her first fire truck. When she joined the Philadelphia Fire Department as a paramedic in 1990, there were five female paramedics and one female firefighter on staff.

Today, Long is one of three female fire captains - she was the first woman to achieve that rank, in 2010 - and one of 60 female firefighters in a department of about 2,000.

Long is a married mother of two, and a big reader. One favorite book: Howard's End. Her climb up the career ladder included a slow, steady pursuit of a bachelor's degree in EMS management (finishing with a 4.0 GPA after a decade of taking a course or two a semester) and a master's degree in public safety.

She had worked her way up to the rank of paramedic field captain and then took a 40 percent pay cut to switch over to follow her true passion - firefighting. She's currently stationed at Engine 41, Ladder 24, Medic 23 in West Philadelphia.

Long spoke recently with Stephanie Farr about what fires her up about fighting fires.

Q You're very educated and well-read. Why choose a visceral career like firefighting, as opposed to a more cerebral one. Or is this a more cerebral job than people might think?

It's both because it's very visceral - and I like the sense of accomplishment, with the sweat equity - but the more you study it, the more there is to learn because every building is different and the fire burns through every building differently.

Q When your team works well together at a fire, does it feel like you're almost one?

When it goes right, you almost don't have to talk because everybody knows where they're supposed to be and you can look at each other and see what's going on.

Q What stereotypes have you had to overcome as a female firefighter?

That we're not as strong as men, because we're not as strong, upper-bodywise. But we're able to use our lower body strength to overcome a lot of that.

We're built to carry an extra 30 pounds. And there's leverage too, if you understand how to use the leverage.

Q Do you feel like you have to work twice as hard as a man to prove yourself?

I always say I feel like I've studied twice as hard. Part of it is a self-motivation. Part of it might be because I'm a woman and I like being able to say, "I was number one on that list, so what are you going to do?"

Q Why do you want to run into burning buildings?

Because it's fun.

Q Most people would say it's crazy. How do you see fun where they see crazy?

I think because it's such a sense of accomplishment when you go into that dark, smoky, hot room and put the fire out as part of a team. Then it's over and you can look around and say, "Look what we did. We stopped it."

Q What have you learned about people after watching them lose all their worldly possessions in a fire?

I'm surprised by their strength.

Q Is there a fire you fought that changed you either as a human being or as a firefighter?

Well, there was a fire I was at that changed me but I was still a paramedic. I was at the [1991] Meridian fire. Three firefighters died there. I was only 26 at the time. I only had six months on the Fire Department. It was very traumatic because you could hear them on the radio. They didn't scream. They were asking for help.

Q Fire has both the power to awe and the power to destroy. Do you ever find yourself in awe of a fire?

It's always beautiful. Sometimes it's the flames and the colors and the way it almost seems alive. Fires in fireplaces are the most beautiful because they're safe.

Q What would you tell young girls who want to go into fields that are still male-dominated?

Just do it. I mean, really, if you don't try it you'll never know. And it might not work out, but you won't know unless you try it. Just try it. I think people often regret the things they haven't done.

Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected