A Spark for Living: Mary Norum Hallman '91, M.A.T. '92

Mary Norum Hallman ’91, MAT ’92 never planned to become a Tacoma firefighter —in fact the Fairbanks, Alaska, native trained as a teacher—but now she can’t imagine doing anything else.

As told to Deborah Olsen

As a child I never dreamed of becoming a firefighter. In fact, six years ago I didn’t even know what the job entailed. My first exposure to it came when I was working out pretty regularly and my weight lifting partner was going through firefighter training. I told him that I needed some sort of a physical goal to work toward, some purpose for why I was working out. And he said, ‘Why don’t you try to pass the [physically challenging] firefighter’s exam?’

So I took the written test and was notified that I had qualified. I didn’t want the job; I just wondered if I could be offered a position. I was getting ready for another year of teaching, and I turned the first offer down. I got a second letter and again said no because I wasn’t interested. I sent in that denial on a Friday. Saturday, I took a first-aid class taught by a firefighter. At the end of the class he said to me, ‘You know, you really ought to consider becoming a firefighter. You’re obviously fit.’ So I figured, well, why not? I could always go back to teaching.

The first part of the physical test was doing the essential elements, like starting a chain saw and hoisting ladders, that kind of stuff. Then they had us climb to the top of a 100-foot ladder that is extended from a fire truck, secure a safety harness, let go of the ladder and lean back with arms extended and your feet on the rung. Once I did that I was hooked. This job could be fun.

No special treatment
I’m not a pioneer. Had I been Eileen Lewis [the first woman on the Tacoma fire service, 20 years ago], you bet. She encountered a whole lot more difficulties and challenges. I don’t feel like a pioneer in any sense. What I’m doing is special, but I don’t feel that I’m special for doing it.

I have not encountered any harassment or discrimination or difficulties because of my gender. Some things can be more difficult. Naturally, I don’t have as much upper body strength as a man. But there are techniques, things you can do to help improve how you manage. Learning those things can make a world of difference. For example, it’s a misconception that firefighters carry victims out of burning buildings. Nobody carries anybody; we drag them out.

I had to pass the same physical ability test as the men. The standards weren’t relaxed for females. I can confidently say that I could stand up to nearly any man on the department and do as well or better. In that sense, I’m not intimidated.

You really get to know the crew you work with because you’re with them 24 hours. Although I’ve never given it a second thought, one of the most asked questions I get from friends is, ‘Do you guys sleep in the same place?’ At this station, beds are at least separated by lockers. But at most stations everybody’s in one big room. If somebody snores you hear it. It never has bothered me. Everybody acts appropriately. You wear a T-shirt and shorts to bed. If you’re uncomfortable with something, it is an open enough environment to say, “Hey, you know what, can you change that a little bit.” Everybody is respectful of one another. I’ve never run into any problems.

An unpredictable routine
Firefighters are always the heroes. If you call the fire department, we always come. That’s kind of fun. People want to see us. We’re there to help. You really feel like wherever you go you’re well accepted and people are happy to have you there.

Firefighting and teaching are similar in that they are very people-oriented professions and offer different challenges every day. I still work with the public and serve the community and see immediate rewards. And I get to do a lot of things other people don’t. Not everything I do is exciting, but the opportunity is there every day.

A typical day begins at 7 a.m. I usually report just a little earlier. The first thing I do is go to the rig and exchange gear with whomever I’m relieving. Then I go through the rig inventory and check my SCBA [breathing apparatus]. I’m in charge of all the medical gear, so I make sure we’re well stocked and everything is in good shape. Then I inventory the rest of the rig and make sure everything is in its place.

Usually, the first half hour of the shift is pretty relaxed. We’re talking with the crew we’re relieving, seeing how their shift was. Once they leave, we change into uniform and begin house duties. Everyone has jobs they’re responsible for. I get bathrooms and kitchen. I get the yucky stuff, not because I’m a woman, but because of my position. I’m third person on the rig and usually the third person gets the bathrooms. When I’m the driver, as I am sometimes, then I’m responsible for doing a rig check to make sure all the fluids are up, make sure the pump is working, that kind of maintenance stuff.

On most weekdays some sort of training is going on, like classes, captain’s drill groups or practice burns. We usually do a few commercial building inspections for fire and life safety hazards. And then, of course, calls come in without warning. You’re ready for them whatever you’re doing. Some days can be relaxing. Others it’s one thing right after the next, and you might not get a chance to eat until late at night. You just don’t know what is going to happen, which is part of what I like.

Except for the three months during probation that I spent on a truck I’ve always been on an engine. Engines carry water and hoses. An engine crew’s primary function at fires is to put the fire out and check for fire extension. Engines also respond to most aid calls. My station goes to a lot of accidents because of our proximity to Highway 16 and the [Narrows] bridge. A truck carries ladders, chainsaws, shovels, tarps; it’s a giant toolbox. The truck is responsible for ventilation at fires; the crew chops holes in the roof and starts fans to clear smoke. A truck also carries the Jaws of Life to cut open a car if the need arises at accidents, but because they are so few [four in Tacoma], trucks are reserved primarily for fire calls.

Going into a burning building is frightening and exciting at the same time. You don’t have a whole lot of time to think about the dangers, really. Training takes over. And I trust my equipment and my partner. Some fires are definitely bigger than others. A kitchen fire is pretty well contained. A house that’s fully involved can really get your heart racing. You walk in the front door and you’ve got a hand line and your partner and you’re just trying to find the fire and you can’t see anything. It can be confusing and frightening, but exciting.

Meshing work and family
My husband, Mark [Hallman ’90, MED ’95, a school counselor], and I were already married when I decided to become a firefighter so, naturally, I talked to him before I accepted. He was wonderful about it, very supportive, even though it meant a huge change in what we had planned, like both of us having the summers off as teachers.

And we knew we wanted to have kids. How would that work? Great, as it turned out. Because I work 24 hours on, 48 off, 24 on, 96 off, I have the luxury of being home with my two children [Benjamin, 2, and Hannah, 9 months] a good deal of the time. During the summer months when Mark is off, I don’t go to work more than two shifts a week.

We haven’t talked a lot about the dangers of the job. Of course, it can be a concern. He certainly recognizes the risks, but he doesn’t fret each time I walk out the door to go to work. He knows I have conscientious co-workers I trust, that I’m well trained and that we never go into a fire alone or without a mask on.

Everything I do I enjoy. I can’t tell you one thing I don’t like about my job. I don’t think it’s just the novelty or the newness or my youth. I just love this job. I think most firefighters will say the same thing. My sister always tells me how lucky I am to earn a living doing something I love. I would not want to be doing anything else. I enjoy every day I come to work.