Central Pierce battalion chief let glass ceiling burn

Sue Tucker proved she could do job from start

Staff writerMarch 31, 2014 

It doesn’t happen often, but when a little girl tells Sue Tucker she wants to be a firefighter, it makes the Central Pierce battalion chief smile.

“I always try to encourage them,” she said. “I spend time talking to them and showing them the truck. I hope in 15 or 16 years that’s still what they want to do.”

Tucker, 56, the first female firefighter at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue (and in Pierce County, as far as she knows) will retire Monday after 35 years with the department.

“She was actually the first person I met when I walked in the door,” said Fire Chief Keith Wright, who started about 25 years ago. “I’ve been a friend of hers ever since. I learned a lot from her. She’s been a true value to the department and to the community. She’ll be missed.”

Tucker was 21 when she was hired in 1979 by Parkland Fire, which later merged to become Central Pierce Fire & Rescue.

Her boss of 13 years, Tip Thibodeaux, remembers getting the news when he returned from vacation.

“The chief says: ‘You’ve got a new firefighter on your shift,’” Thibodeaux said. “Needless to say, it turned out to be a female. Think back about 35 years. I was really not happy. On top of that, she was small-statured. She looked like a little kid.”

So he tested her.

“To make her life miserable,” he remembered, “I gave her a lot of dirty details,” which basically meant grunt work such as mopping floors. “Never once did she falter. She just did the job.”

Thibodeaux told Tucker from the beginning she’d get no preferential treatment.

“She worked alongside them just like one of the boys,” he said.

That meant sleeping in an open bunk room. The only change in the facilities was to put bolts on the showers.

Tucker always did her job beyond his expectations, Thibodeaux said, by working hard and putting in longer hours.

Her first fire was memorable, Tucker said, because she was told unexpectedly to head in and fight it, and remembers initially feeling like she didn’t know what she was doing.

“She did a heck of a job in the fire service,” Thibodeaux said. “I’m not surprised she’s excelled. I’m just surprised she hasn’t moved up to a chief’s position.”

If Tucker noticed the extra chores, she doesn’t say so.

“I did everything that everybody else did,” she said. “You were just one of the team, and I appreciated that. I felt that I had to prove to everyone I could do it. But that was me, not them.”

Thibodeaux eventually decided having Tucker around was going to be just fine after she pulled him out of a training burn gone awry.

“Our mixture wasn’t what it should have been, so basically, I was somewhat on fire and she pulled me out,” he recalled.

And while Tucker’s boss and co-workers were supportive, Thibodeaux said he got letters from the public giving him guff about having a woman on staff.

“They were hostile at the beginning,” he said.

While Tucker minimizes any sort of gender challenge, one of her peers put it into perspective.

“There weren’t a lot of people saying you could do it or you should do it,” said Theresa Purtell, a Seattle firefighter who was the first woman to study the craft at Bates Technical College.

She and Tucker were among three women at the school when Tucker studied there.

“You really had to have faith in yourself,” Purtell said. “You just didn’t have those role models out there.”

That fortitude helped Tucker rise into leadership roles. She became a battalion chief in 1992, and in that position has recently overseen half of Central Pierce’s 12 stations.

“It’s kind of like your own sports team,” Tucker said. “I’m the coach. It’s fun.”

She said that along the way she’s tried to mentor other women in the service. But today only eight of Central Pierce’s 200 employees are women, she said.

“The numbers across the country are dropping,” Tucker said. “Maybe it’s just the generation. I grew up in the ’70s, when you were told you can do anything and everything. I don’t know if that message is being carried on.”

Was there any chauvinistic behavior that had to be shut down throughout her career?

“Oh, I’m sure,” Tucker said.

Though she wouldn’t give examples, she said jokes are what sometimes get firefighters in trouble. And they know when they’ve crossed a line.

“Sometimes you just have to give them a look,” she laughed.

On the flip side, jokes are a big part of fitting in, Tucker said.

“I held my own,” she said. “You don’t want to show your weak side. You have to be just as quick with the humor.”

Her best prank, she said, was probably when a paramedic who thought himself in good shape went on vacation, and she had his uniform taken in to be a smaller size.

In general, Tucker says, she was never treated poorly or special. Still, she said, she heard stories from women at other agencies that were less positive, such as male firefighters not eating with women on their crew or not offering help with training.

“Maybe trying to make them feel less confident,” Tucker said. “It still goes on today.”

In retirement, Tucker hopes to spend two years studying physical therapy locally. She’s applying to Green River Community College.

Then, maybe a move.

“I’m looking for warmer weather,” Tucker laughed.

During the winter, she said, former co-workers who retired to Arizona have sent her sun-drenched photos, making it tempting to follow their lead.

With her 24-year-old daughter in medical school in Pennsylvania, Tucker said she can go anywhere she wants.

And she’ll have more time for her hobbies outside of work. She took up piano at age 40, and enjoys gardening, she said.

As she wraps up her career, she said she hopes the knowledge she’s shared over the years has helped people.

But as far as being Pierce County’s first female firefighter, Tucker doesn’t feel special.

“I always considered myself one of the guys,” she said. “You start out at the bottom and prove that you can do the job.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268

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