Women’s History Month: A Spotlight on the Women Firefighters of Graham Fire & Rescue

March 20th, 2023

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve set out to explore not only the broad history of women in the fire service but also the history of women serving as firefighters at Graham Fire & Rescue.

Nationally, women were serving as firefighters as early as the 1800’s. The first known female firefighter was Molly Williams, who was a slave in New York City and later became a member of the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in 1815.

Fast forward to World War II, as men were being called into the military, many women across the country entered the volunteer fire service to continue providing critical emergency services to their communities. In fact, two military fire departments in Illinois were staffed entirely by women for part of the war.

In 1973, history was made when Sandra Forcier was hired as the first woman to ever be paid for firefighting in an urban setting. Hired as a Public Safety Officer in Winston-Salem, NC, Sandra served as both a police officer and a firefighter.

First Woman Volunteer Firefighter Joins Graham Fire & Rescue: Julie Loofbourow

Women have been an integral part of Graham Fire & Rescue’s history since its early years. In June 1976, Julie Loofbourow joined the department as the first female volunteer firefighter.

Julie graduated High School with her EMT certification and immediately joined the fire service after graduation. She primarily served as an EMT until successfully completing fire training, and was assigned to serve as a firefighter/EMT at Station 2 (now known as station 92).

In early 1977, Julie convinced her neighbor, Debby Shandy, into volunteering with her, “I believe she had her EMT also” stated Julie. “She stayed for a year or so, but didn’t like responding to calls that involved neighbors and friends. I didn’t blame her, I didn’t like that either. “

Julie and Debby served as the only female volunteer firefighter/EMTs until 1978 when Julie’s sister, Laurie Loofbourow Lowery, turned old enough to serve as a firefighter.

“My sister, Laurie, wanted to join when I did, but she was 16 at the time. The district’s insurance wouldn’t cover her so the district Commissioners had her classified as an intern until she turned 18,” stated Julie.

From 1976 to 1980, in addition to volunteering at Graham Fire & Rescue, Julie worked for several ambulance companies and served on the medical staff at the Puyallup International Raceway.

Julie left the fire district in 1980 and move to California for work. “A huge recession was going on and at 21 I needed a solid source of income, no one was hiring at the time,” stated Julie. “Even the federal funds I was paid under dried up.”

At the age of 33, Julie entered into Law Enforcement and was eventually hired on at the King County Sheriff’s Department where she served for 20 years before retiring in 2011.

“All of the skills I learned as a Firefighter/EMT helped me with my Law Enforcement career. I learned how to be tough, fair, handle crisis, talk to people, and countless other skills which were useful to public safety” concluded Julie.

Laurie Loofbourow-Lowery

“My interest in the fire service started soon after my family moved to Kapowsin,” stated Laurie. “While growing up we lived close to Station 2 and I would often be awakened at night by the firehouse siren calling the volunteers to the station. I would watch from my bedroom window, waiting to see if the engine would pass by a break in the trees along Kapowsin Highway because I wanted to know where they were going and who needed help.”

In 1977, Laurie, not quite old enough to serve as a firefighter, joined Graham Fire & Rescue where she would respond to district headquarters and take over dispatch duties, which at the time were being handled by dispatchers from the Puyallup Police Department.

Once she turned 18, Laurie was approved to respond to calls as a volunteer firefighter. She remembers feeling like a member of an important team.

“The camaraderie at Station 2 was important to me,” stated Laurie. “I felt that it was strong and I was accepted as an integral part of the team. I was proud of Engine 2, training on the truck and its equipment whenever I could, as well as washing and polishing the truck constantly.”

Laurie served as a volunteer firefighter/EMT with Graham Fire & Rescue until 1983. When asked what the hardest part of being a female firefighter was, she responded with having to handle a charged 2 1/2″ hose line. “Once it was placed I could maintain control of it by sitting on it, but getting it to where it needed to be was not easy for me,” added Laurie.

Myra Merdian-Drake

Myra joined Graham Fire & Rescue in February of 1979 and initially served as a dispatcher.

“That lasted two weeks,” stated Myra. “I got bored sitting at a desk all day. I eventually started going along on fire and EMS calls, then decided to train to become a firefighter.”

Eventually, Myra worked her way up to being one of the first female commissioned fire service officers in Pierce County.

As a Captain assigned to station 1 (now known as Station 91), she would also act as the Command Officer on incidents. She recalls experiences when other firefighters would look past her when she was making decisions on-scene. “The women thing,” stated Myra. “I would simply tell them they needed to communicate with me, I was the boss at that time.”

Myra dedicated the rest of her career to serving the citizens of Graham Fire & Rescue. She eventually transitioned from captain to volunteer coordinator to public educator where she taught multiple generations of students the importance of fire safety.

“My time with Graham Fire & Rescue encompassed fearlessness, perseverance and confidence,” stated Myra. “I was dedicated to the success of the fire district and serving our community. I wouldn’t trade a day of my experiences! I hope my service has changed a few things for the better.”

Myra retired from Graham Fire & Rescue in 2020 after serving the community for 40 years.

First Woman Career Firefighter Joins Graham Fire & Rescue: Georgia Daniels

Georgia Daniels was hired on as Graham Fire & Rescue’s first female career firefighter in 1995.

She became interested in the fire service in a different way than most. She recalls not really knowing that firefighting was even a career option. In 1994, she joined the Tacoma Mountain Rescue where she was encouraged to obtain her EMT certification.

“At that time to get into EMT classes you needed to be sponsored by a fire department,” stated Georgia. “I was living in the Graham area and contacted the local fire department (Graham Fire & Rescue), and found out that I would need to become a volunteer in order for them to sponsor me.”

Georgia completed the volunteer academy and then went to EMT school at Bates Technical College. At the same time, Graham Fire & Rescue announced that they were hiring one or two firefighters, Georgia decided to take the test.

“I definitely did not think I would get hired because there were long term residents and volunteers in the department but took it anyway,” stated Georgia. “I remember the day the department called to say I made the top 3! They told me the academy starts in September so show up.”

Overcoming adversity was a significant part of Georgia’s career. There weren’t many female firefighters in the industry, and she had to learn how to navigate how females where viewed in a male dominated profession.

Georgia is proud of how far the fire service has come.

“I wish I was able to start my career over knowing what I know now in addition to the general acceptance that females are a crucial and deserving part of the fire service environment,” added Georgia.

When asked what advice she would give other females pursuing a career in the fire service, Georgia responded with “be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, which is why we work as a crew. All of our individual skills combine together to create one strong unit.”

Georgia retired from Graham Fire & Rescue in 2021 after serving the community for 26 years.

Current Women Firefighters of Graham Fire & Rescue

Currently, Graham Fire & Rescue has four female career firefighters and one female firefighter who is currently attending fire academy. We asked them the following questions:

Describe your pathway into the fire service?

“I first became interested in the fire service when I was in junior high. I would come home from school and watch the television show Emergency! everyday. The show really sparked my interest into the Fire Service and from that point forward, it was the only career that I felt would be a fit for me. I did my very first ride-a-long with Graham Fire & Rescue when I was in the 9th grade. It was my first exposure to the fire department, and I loved everything about the atmosphere and the different challenges of the job. During high school, I continued to seek out different ways I could engage with the fire service and enrolled in a summer internship program through Bates Technical College. My junior year of high school, I was fortunate enough to participate in Camp Blaze. Camp Blaze is a weeklong female fire camp designed to give young women a hands-on experience into the fire service, led by all-female firefighters from around the country. The camp was such a positive and motivating experience for me. I knew instantly that I would someday become a professional firefighter.”

– Lieutenant Jill D’Len, 18 years of service

“My father was a firefighter for Tacoma fire and one day he said I should try it out. In my late 20s I had worked a couple jobs that were not fulfilling to me so I decided to volunteer for the fire service and fell in love with it. My journey started back in 2008 when I volunteered for Oak Harbor Fire. I was intrigued by the physicality, constant knowledge, and excitement of the career. This led me to go to EMT school and pursue a career position in the fire department. After I became an EMT, I had the opportunity to work private ambulance in Seattle. Being in the city I learned an abundance of things because of the diverse clientele and specialty centers located there. This experience inspired me to become a paramedic to learn more so I decided to enroll at Tacoma Community College and became a paramedic in 2011.”

– Lieutenant Sarah Swart, 8 years of service

“I became interested in high school and joined a King County fire explorer program in 2001. That experience drew my interest in firefighting and the EMS side of the job. I was able to connect with a Seattle Fire Department paramedic and did a ride along with her. The first call of the day was a cardiac arrest, which was intense but peaked my interest even more. Initially I wanted to be a paramedic only as I believed I wasn’t physically capable of being a firefighter. I started my journey and I received my EMT-Basic in 2005 at Bates College. From there I worked on a private ambulance for 5 years in the city of Seattle and South King County. I gained incredible experience (very important in this profession) as an EMT-Basic. In 2008 I started to take my prerequisites for Paramedic school. In 2009-2010 I was accepted to Paramedic school at Tacoma Community College. During paramedic school you have field training with local fire departments and during my time riding with a Kitsap county fire department I really enjoyed the dynamic of being first on scene and the camaraderie between firefighters was intriguing as well.”

– Firefighter/Paramedic Suzi Bowman, 12 years of service

“After an 18 year career as a hairstylist, I was in search of a new challenge. I started that career right out of high school. I had built up a successful business, ran a salon, met some amazing people but I was ready for change. Becoming a firefighter had always seemed unattainable because it was so different from my current job. You never know until you try! I wanted to get some experience and make sure this path that was right for me. I got on as a volunteer at Tumwater Fire my local fire department. I worked with them and went through EMT school, and fire academy. The combination of hard physical work, medical calls, customer service, and camaraderie made every day exciting, fulfilling, and also fun. I knew right away that this was the real deal. I made the huge decision with the support of my family to pursue this full time, and I am so happy I did.”

– Firefighter/EMT Tyler Schaff, 4 years of service

“I moved up to WA when I was three years old because my father was hired with Central Pierce Fire and Rescue. He was a firefighter/paramedic for almost 25 years. I have experienced the fire service in my own home. The community and family the fire service provides is something I felt I belonged to. After campaigning for sailing in a Laser Radial, I wanted to have a normal life. After a few years of being an office administrator I wanted more action in my day. I started my pathway to become a firefighter with the Public Safety Test and applied to Graham Fire and Rescue. With Graham Fire and Rescue I felt at home, my whole experience with getting hired was professional and welcoming.”

– Recruit Hanne Weaver

Why did you want to become a firefighter?

“I wanted to become a firefighter because I love facing challenges and knew that every day would be different. Firefighters have to problem solve continuously and work together as a team to be successful. I have always been competitive in nature and strive to do something that challenged me physically and mentally. The fire service also gives me a chance to connect with community members and hopefully leave a positive, professional impression with those we serve.”

– Lieutenant Jill D’Len, 18 years of service

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a firefighter at first until I started volunteering. My thirst to learn more and do more became my passion for this field. I have been told I am not big enough or strong enough and that fuels my competitive nature to try harder and prove that I can do anything no matter my size. I enjoy the physical aspect of firefighting, the compassionate side of helping the public, the constant learning and improvement of our craft, and the team camaraderie of my second family the fire service.”

– Lieutenant Sarah Swart, 8 years of service

“I truly enjoy helping people.”

– Firefighter/Paramedic Suzi Bowman, 12 years of service

“At a young age firefighting was never on my radar. I had no family in the fire service and I didn’t even think as a woman it was an option. One thing that is pretty great about being in the industry that I was in, was meeting different people from all different walks of life. Everyone I’d met that was in the fire service had one thing in common, they love what they do! This was inspiring, and helped motivate me to become one myself. I had always been driven by customer service and physical fitness is a huge part of my life, being a firefighter was both. Also as a mother to a young girl it was really important to me to be a strong role model. Showing her to always chase after your dreams no matter how scary or big they may be. Becoming a firefighter is something I am proud of and she sees that!”

– Firefighter/EMT Tyler Schaff, 4 years of service

“Competing around the world I saw myself in a career where the environment was always changing. Where I needed to think outside the box, know how to make decisions with the information I have and learn to grow from them. Through my sailing experience I have learned the muscle body memory on how to rig my boat. I arrived each day making sure each line was in the correct place, in working order, and I was ready to perform at any time. These experiences I have encountered in my life led me to become a firefighter.”

– Recruit Hanne Weaver

What is the best piece of advice you would give a young woman trying to become a firefighter?

“Never give up in pursuing your dream. There will be plenty of obstacles and failures, but keep your head held high and believe in yourself. If you work hard and stay committed, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Also, start working on physical fitness as soon as possible. Women must build strength in many ways so start to establish a healthy lifestyle as soon as possible. Get out of your comfort zone and start training now.”

– Lieutenant Jill D’Len, 18 years of service

“You can do anything you put your mind to, you are the only one stopping you. Be humble, graceful, fierce and professional, and most of all do not stop fighting for your dreams. Respect is earned through hard work, not just given.”

– Lieutenant Sarah Swart, 8 years of service

“Be okay with making mistakes and just learn from it.”

– Firefighter/Paramedic Suzi Bowman, 12 years of service

“The best advice I would give young women trying to become a firefighter is to be confident. It is easy to feel intimidated because this is hard work. Go all in with everything you do and if you get knocked down get up and do it again. It is a long hard process to become a firefighter but when you finally get there it is so worth it. Know yourself well and don’t set boundaries for yourself. If you want something bad enough you will make it happen!”

– Firefighter/EMT Tyler Schaff, 4 years of service

“Listen, be observant, and pay attention to details.”

– Recruit Hanne Weaver

Acknowledgement of past and present women firefighters of Graham Fire & Rescue:

  • Julie Loofbourow – 1976
  • Debby Shandy – 1977
  • Laurie Loofbourow Lowery – 1977
  • Judy Scartozzi – 1979
  • Myra Merdian-Drake – 1979
  • Sherry Younce-Seerley – 1980
  • Penny Harris – 1980
  • Eileen McFadden – 1980
  • Vernie Dunham – 1980
  • Melinda Walker – 1984
  • Dee Bamford – 1987
  • Laura Jones – 1990
  • Ronda Bowerman – 1991
  • Leane Matz – 2001
  • Lynne Carrano – 1992
  • Sandra Marshall – 1982
  • Stacy Allen – 1995
  • Georgia Daniels – 1995
  • Jeanette Palmer – 1996
  • Tonja Blaullet [SP] Fortier – 1996
  • Heidi Robinson – 1996
  • Sue Schroeder Schultz – 1998
  • Danielle Harmon – 2003
  • Jill D’Len – 2004
  • Janelle Wagner – 2005
  • Suzi Bowman – 2010
  • Sarah Swart – 2014
  • Tyler Schaff – 2019
  • Hanne Weaver – 2023