by Maura Boston '17 and Jessie Wurzer '17
Christi Shibata and Michelle Woolverton are the first female full-time firefighters at the Notre Dame Fire Department. They talk about career transitions, fire academy training, and breaking into a male-dominated field. Did you know that ND has the oldest university fire department in the U.S? Read on to learn about some of its unique traditions. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.
Michelle, what motivated you to become a firefighter?
When I was doing an internship as a paramedic, I worked with a variety of different fire departments. It opened my eyes to a bigger field, one that involved helping and teaching people. It was a wake up call and it was the flashing light that let me know this is my purpose in life. I was very happy when I was doing it. I just knew it was my calling, as crazy as that sounds.
You were a supervisor in ND building services for 9 years. What lessons did you learn there that you took with you when stepping into this new role?
That experience actually helps me a lot with the position I’m in now. I built a lot of relationships with the rectors in the dorms and the building managers across campus. Plus, just having a good knowledge of campus is very helpful. I’m very familiar with the layouts of the buildings, where the key accesses are, where the boxes are to reset the fire alarms, and where the sprinkler rooms are.
Christi, prior to being a firefighter, you worked a physical therapist’s assistant for eight years. What made you want to make a career transition?
I enjoyed my PT assistant job, but I started to get frustrated. It seemed like I was doing the same things over and over again and struggling to get patients to be their own advocates and take care of themselves if they wanted to see improvements. I knew that I wanted to continue to help people, but maybe outside of a clinic and on the front lines of emergency medicine. I started to brainstorm other careers. I eventually came to firefighter EMT. EMT fit pretty naturally with my medical background.
As for the firefighter part, I had always been fascinated by fires. That type of first response action really seemed to fit with me so I decided to take a shot at it. I really didn’t know where to start. My sister worked for Notre Dame and was able to give me the contact information for ND Department’s chiefs. They allowed me to do a ride-along and introduced me to the Chief Training Officer at the Clay Fire Academy where I ended up training. I still work part time for the Academy.
I’d like to give a shout out to the guys at Clay for helping me get my start with no background in firefighting and a shout out to the guys in the departments that I work with. They have been amazing in teaching Michelle and me the ropes. All of the guys on our shifts have been great at mentoring us and not treating us differently because we are women. They respect us, accept us, and treat us like all the other new firefighters.
People may not know that your sister is the ND police chief. How has your relationship changed with her now that you both work at ND in emergency response roles?
Christi: We have always been really close. She’s always had the older sister, protective mindset. I’ve been the classic younger sister in that I’ve looked up to her and she is my role model. Being able to work at the same university and live in the same town has helped our relationship as adults. It’s nice that we get to spend a little more time together now, although we’re both really busy so sometimes I will go a week and not even see her, even though I room with her! I enjoy that we can serve the Notre Dame community in two aspects, with her on the police side and me the fire side. It feels like we’ve got public safety covered.
Michelle, you also trained at the Clay Fire Academy. Can you talk about the training process?
Michelle: It is hard, and it kicks your butt. You learn all sorts of things, from building codes, to how to fight a fire, to how to go into a fire. It’s all hands on and is very physical. You screw up a lot, you fail a lot, but you brush yourself off and go in again. It teaches you a different way of thinking by moving you from textbook learning to actually learning on the training grounds. We started out with 30 class members in my academy class and there were 18 that graduated. I was the only woman.
ND has the oldest university fire department in the U.S. Are there any unique traditions in the department?
Christi: All fire departments are steeped in tradition and history. The ND fire department was started after the Main Building burned down. Father Sorin saw the need for the university to have its own fire department. It started with Holy Cross brothers as the firefighters, and most of them also worked at the university power plant. If they got a call, they would run across the street to the firehouse. Eventually it transitioned from a team of Holy Cross brothers to a team of students. The students worked as firefighters in exchange for room and board and tuition as well, I think. Later, the department switched to having full time firefighters.
We like to still keep some of the old traditions. For example, we still have the brothers' original kitchen table which we eat at in the firehouse. It helps us remember our history and where we came from.
Michelle: There are a couple of cool traditions. In the apparatus bay, where we keep the fire trucks, we have something called a joker stand. All fire departments used to have them, but I’m unsure of how many still use them. When a fire alarm comes in, the joker stand system punches a number into a roll of paper, and that is the number of the building where the alarm is coming from. I’ve never seen it in any other firehouse. Also, relying on students for help is a longstanding tradition at the ND department. We still rely on a lot of EMT students to help us, and this year we have a female student firefighter.
What do you want students to know about the fire department?
Michelle: I want the students to know we are always here for them. Just because it’s a fire department doesn’t mean it has to be a fire for you to talk to us. We are friends. We are here if you need to talk, if you have questions, if you need help with anything.
Christi: We are here to serve the students. If there is a medical emergency at 2am, we will be there and we will help them out. We want them to be comfortable calling if they need help with anything.
One of the slogans in safety is “see something, say something.” Let us know and we will come in and investigate. That’s what we are there for. We want the place they are living in to be as safe as possible. We are available 24/7.
Also, even though there are many false smoke alarms, when the alarm goes off, we want people to evacuate the building. So take things seriously when the alarms go off. We will come and respond as quickly as we can to get you back to your routine.
What advice would you give to women looking to break into a male-dominated field?
Christi: My only advice is if you feel like something is what you are meant to do and you would fit well in that field, don’t let your gender be a hindrance. Just go for it. Do your best. Work as hard as you can. If you are a good fit, you will figure it all out. Don’t be scared to take a chance. Don’t let gender or age or anything else stop you from what you are passionate about.
Michelle: The biggest thing I’d say is don’t look at it as a male/female thing. If you do, you are already setting yourself up for a struggle. That male/female aspect shouldn’t mean anything. If you have your mind set on something, go for it and don’t let anything stop you. Sometimes the biggest thing stopping you is yourself because you put doubts in your mind.
One of my favorite quotes is “Never let the odds keep you from doing what you know in your heart you are meant to do.” That’s what I live my life by and why I think I am where I’m at. It is drive. I want to do this and I enjoy doing this. Being a female is all about what you want, and you can do anything if you put your mind to it.
Thank you to Christi Shibata and Michelle Woolverton for taking the time to share your experiences with us and for your dedicated service!
As we continue our campus conversations, we encourage you to tell us who we should talk to. Do you know a woman on campus who has a story to tell? She can be a professor or pianist, coach or chemist, administrator or athlete. We hope you'll help us seek out more Notre Dame women who can share a bit about their lives, so we can all continue to learn from each other. Click here to make a suggestion.