Kristina Stringer is no stranger to adventure.
She’s been a horse wrangler. She’s been a ski instructor in France. In her free time, she’s a chainsaw artist (no, really).
To pay for college, Stringer worked on a fishing boat in Alaska.
It’s this formative experience, Stringer says, that directly led to the adventure she’s spent the last 11 years pursuing in Tacoma, what she calls her “dream job.” She is the second-most senior fire boat pilot for the Tacoma Fire Department, meaning she’s one of just five firefighters capable of captaining Tacoma Fire’s two primary response boats — the Destiny and the Defiance.
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Stringer also is the first — and only — female to hold the position in the long history of Tacoma’s marine division, which dates back to the 1930s, and one of only a handful of female pilots across the country.
Come January, Stringer will move on to her next adventure.
She recently turned 53, and — fittingly — decided it was time for a new challenge.
“I turned 53, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m done,’” Stringer said by phone last week, shortly before one of her last 24-hour shifts at Station 14.
“Money can’t buy sleep,” she explained with a laugh.
Exhaustion aside, Stringer’s decision to retire at a relatively young age should hardly come as a surprise, at least for those who know her. As her 24-year career with the Tacoma Fire shows, Stringer has spent her life feeding off adrenaline — whether fighting fires on the water, aiding in rescue efforts or cruising down the ski slopes on her days off, as she did on Christmas Eve.
As a woman, Stringer has spent much of her life butting up against entrenched gender-based discrimination and, especially as a firefighter, quietly proving people wrong.
She recalls her stint as a horse wrangler, and how — despite her skill — opportunities to pursue the profession all but dried up when, in the 1980s, major companies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming refused to hire a woman.
While she has nothing but positive things to say about Tacoma Fire’s leadership and her many coworkers, Stringer — who bristles at the mere thought of drawing attention to herself — also recalls the added challenges she faced in becoming the city’s first female fire boat pilot more than a decade ago.
“To me, it wasn’t about being the first woman pilot. I was interested in the job,” Stringer says flatly, describing it as a passion that goes all the way back to her time fishing in Alaska and one that survived even as Tacoma Fire has seen significant cutbacks to its fire boat program since the Great Recession.
“Even coming on, it has not been easy. I’ve always felt like I’ve been watched. I always work extra hard to do what I need to do, because I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh, she’s a woman. She can’t do it,’” Stringer says.
“I just wanted to be treated equally. Sometimes I have been, sometimes I haven’t. I just wanted to be able to make a difference. Sometimes I have, sometimes I haven’t.”
Humility is one of Stringer’s endearing qualities, but an objective review of her 24 years of service with the Tacoma Fire Department — and particularly her 11 years piloting a fire boat — suggests she’s selling herself short.
There’s a reason, according to Tacoma Fire Deputy Chief Tory Green, that Stringer has become such a valued and “sought after” fire boat pilot.
While fires on the water are relatively rare, fire boats regularly respond to all sorts of emergencies. Tacoma Fire’s marine unit has averaged 165 responses over the past three years, ranging from hikers who find themselves in trouble at Point Defiance to — as Stringer recalls of one particularly memorable call — dogs who mistakenly “go Superman” chasing a stick over a cliff on the Gig Harbor side of the Narrows.
Green says Stringer excels at all of it, which is why she’ll be so missed.
(Also, in case you’re wondering, the dog survived — though it did break its back and required a rope rescue.)
“I think the bottom line is we’re losing a lot when we lose Kristina,” Green says. “She’s a very competent fire boat pilot. She’s been driving that boat for a long time, and she is very capable. She just brings a lot to that position.”
Looking forward to spending more time traveling with her partner Martin, who she describes as “the love of my life and best friend,” the couple’s two dogs, and her chainsaw art (again, really), I asked Stringer what she hopes readers would take from her story.
Characteristically, she deferred — aside from one simple request.
“It has to be a humble article,” Stringer said. “I don’t like to draw a lot of attention to myself.”
“It hasn’t been the gravy job, being female, but it is what it is,” Stringer acknowledges when pressed.
“I feel really lucky.”
As Tacoma’s first female fire boat pilot prepares for her next act, we should all feel the same way.