First female battalion chief blazing a trail

Linda Long became the first female battalion chief in the city. She’s stationed at Chelten and Baynton
in Germantown. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

There weren’t many women firefighters when Linda Long, now 54, was a kid, but the first time she sat in a fire truck she knew she wanted to be a firefighter. So, when Long turned 18, she tried to join Fort Washington Volunteer Fire Company. She began going to training sessions on Monday nights, but ultimately the firehouse rejected her on a technicality.

She said volunteers are required to go to trainings, meet fellow firefighters and then firefighters vote to decide whether new candidates can join or not.

“They didn’t have any women at the firehouse, and they really didn’t want any women,” she said. “They voted to not let me join. When I asked friends my age if the firehouse let women in, they said, ‘No, we don’t let women in, but the ambulance company does.’”

Long had already volunteered at the Community Ambulance Association of Ambler for roughly more than a year.

“One of the reasons, I decided to join the volunteer ambulance company was so that I could eventually join the fire department,” she said.

When news of the fire company’s rejection became public, the Community Ambulance Association of Ambler offered to train her as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Later, they paid for her to become a paramedic.

After that, the Wissahickon Volunteer Fire Company reached out to Long and invited her to become its first female firefighter. Determined to achieve her dream of becoming a Philadelphia firefighter, she applied for a job with the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services division as a paramedic and planned to eventually become a firefighter.

“When I first joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in August 1990, there were only six or seven women in the 2,200-employee department,” she said.

Long’s leadership skills and strong work ethic were quickly recognized by her superiors and by 1997 she was promoted to paramedic chief. When she decided to leave her position as a paramedic chief with a good paying salary at 39 to pursue her dream job of becoming a firefighter, everyone thought she was crazy. After all, if she passed the grueling test, she would be cutting her salary in half and would be starting at the “bottom” in a predominantly male-oriented career.

“When I was in the academy 14 years ago, I was lucky enough to be in the largest group of women that graduated,” she said. “There were 10 of us out of 90 people, and we all graduated. But we went in early and stayed late. And on our days off, we would workout at my house. Some women could do it effortlessly, but even those who could do it effortlessly worked with the ones who couldn’t, and we ALL graduated. In any group, you are going to find people who are stronger in different areas – mentally, physically and emotionally.”

The risk paid off, and in 2017 Long became the first female fire battalion chief. She is currently stationed at Engine 19 at Chelten Avenue and Baynton Street in Germantown and oversees Northwest Philadelphia.

When she was asked to recall a defining moment in her career as a firefighter she recalled the first time she held the “tip” or the front of the first hose at a fire in Philadelphia.

“I was a volunteer firefighter, so I had been in fires before, but … the first time I actually put a whole floor of fire out was on 63rd Street,” she said. “It was really exciting.”

She explained that in the volunteer fire department each firefighter’s job is not “as specific.” In the Philadelphia Fire Department, each firefighter is assigned a specific job.

“In Philadelphia on the engine, there is a person who has the tip or the hose who puts the fire out,” Long said. “They are the tip of the spear for everybody who is there. You can have two engines, a ladder, a chief, and a medic unit. There could be 30 people there, but you are it. Everybody who is on the fire ground is important, and the fire won’t go out without them, but the person who is on the tip holding the hose of the first engine usually gets the most fire.

She said after she put the fire out, she came outside and everybody said “Good job! That was great.”

“It was a very empowering moment,” she said.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are 1.16 million firefighters in the United States, but only 7 percent are women.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy, who first worked with Long nearly 15 years ago, when they were both assigned to Engine 41/Ladder 24 in West Philadelphia, said not many people would give up the rank and pay of an EMS officer to start over as a firefighter.

“Chief Long is a great role model and a huge asset to the department,” said Murphy. “She continues to make us proud.”

Kathy Matheson, communication director for the Philadelphia Fire Department, said as of December 2017, the Fire Department had 2,235 male employees and 316 female employees. (That covers all jobs firefighter, paramedic, EMT, etc.)

Long, who is a mom and a grandmother, suggested anyone between the ages of 16 and 21 who is interested in becoming a firefighter, should join the Fire Explorers Program or the Fire/EMS Academy at Randolph High School.

Matheson said both programs are “geared toward teaching teens and young adults about the opportunities, rewards and responsibilities of working as a firefighter and/or EMS provider.”

She added that the Fire Department continues to work with the Department of Public Property “to provide gender-neutral facilities” at their stations as the buildings undergo general renovations and upgrades.

In the meantime, women firefighters like Long will continue to lead the way until the Fire Department reflects the diverse communities it works to protect day and night.