On several occasions this past month, when a Glynn County Fire Rescue Department fire engine reached its destination on St. Simons Island, Syndal Tillotson climbed down from out the driver’s seat.
Capt. Elizabeth Hawkins stepped down from the passenger side. The fire engine’s third crew member, Brianna Depp, also arrived on the truck, ready for action.
Crewing a fire engine is all about putting together the best group possible to serve the community’s firefighting needs, but the uniformity of gender on this truck has not gone unnoticed.
“It’s fun whenever we pull up on a scene and the women say, ‘Look, it’s all females on that fire truck,’” said Hawkins, 51. “That’s kind of cool.”
It is also kind of historic, said Glynn County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Scott Cook. Assigned to Engine 2 at Station 2 at 1929 Demere Road, Hawkins, Tillotson and Depp comprise the department’s first all-female engine company. Lest folks think south Georgia is perhaps behind the times, the New York City Fire Department only staffed its first all woman fire engine company in September of 2018, Engine 503 on Manhattan’s East Side.
The trio have served together on Engine 2 throughout November, sharing the same 24-hour shift every third day. Hawkins, a shift captain, picked Tillotson as a replacement on the engine a couple of months ago. “My regular partner got moved out to help with training,” Hawkins said. “They asked who I wanted as my partner and Syndal was available, so I chose her. Then Brianna got moved here as the third on the engine at the start of this month.”
They were on the job Thanksgiving Day, when the three women found time to talk with The News.
“My mom just actually asked me how many girls are in the fire department,” said Depp, 26. “I said, like four or five. There’s not many. But I think all of us being together on this engine shows that the fire department does have more than just a couple of women, and that we can do it too.”
There are several more women serving in the EMS/paramedic services side of the county fire rescue department than on the firefighting side, Tillotson said. Less women choose to enter the more physically-demanding firefighting side of the fire rescue business, she said. Tillotson originally considered going the EMS route herself, she said
But the physically fit and diminutive Tillotson joined the department’s volunteer firefighting force in June of 2018. She was hired as a full-time firefighter in December of that year.
“I was going into EMS,” said Tillotson, 21. “People asked if I was going to try for firefighting. I was like, ‘No.’ But I tried it out. And I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that’s pretty cool.’”
And getting behind the wheel of the big old fire truck is a childhood dream come true. She hopes the all-female engine company might inspire other women to go into firefighting.
“That’s the big question everyone has is about driving the fire truck,” Tillotson said. “I mean, c’mon. I think everybody, when they were kids, wanted to drive the lights and sirens. And believe me, it is just as much fun as you think it is. I had a little boy say, ‘Can you really drive that fire truck?’ I was like, ‘Shoot. It’s in the job description. I better be able to drive it.’”
The veteran Hawkins has been shrugging off doubts about women in firefighting since she first joined the county department back in the 1980s. There will always be skeptics, men and woman, she said. But the more that women step into firefighting roles and handle themselves with distinction, the more the criticism fades, she said.
“There’s always doubt, even just for being a female in the fire department, both from males and females,” Hawkins said. “There’s still surprise that there are women who actually do this. They will ask, ‘Do you actually fight fire?’ Yes! It’s not as surprising to people as it was back when I started, but it is still a common thought.”
This firefighting trio hope to set an example that helps change that kind of thinking. Hawkins and Tillotson are both active in the county fire department’s youth Explorers program.
“We have quite a few girls in the Explorers,” Hawkins said. “So when they see us all working together, or when the youth see us when we go out on a call, it shows they can do this job too if they really want to. And there’s a couple in Explorers who do want to do this.”
Their time together has been mainly uneventful, mostly fire alarms and assisting the two male EMS workers on their shift on medical calls. Depp will be going out on maternity leave within the next couple of weeks. But for the foreseeable future, Tillotson will remain behind the wheel of Engine 2, with Capt. Hawkins at her side.
“We can handle it, whatever comes up,” Tillotson said.