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Being the best she can be

Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.

When Andrea Waters transferred to the Petaluma Fire Department, she didn't realize she would be the first female firefighter in the department in almost 40 years. She didn't think about the fact that she would be only the second woman ever to join California's second oldest department. She just knew she was ready to work.

“I never really paid much attention to the fact that I was the only woman, or the second woman,” said the 33-year-old Waters. “I just came here and tried to be the best firefighter and paramedic I could be — just like everyone else here.”

Whether she meant to or not, Waters stood out. After beating out a field of 250 applicants for the position, she gained the respect of her peers and her command staff.

“It wasn't that we needed to get a woman in the department,” said Battalion Chief Phil Sutsos, who has been with the department for 32 years and was part of Waters' interview board. “We didn't lower our standards. She came in and passed with flying colors. She was, and continues to be, extremely impressive.”

Waters was born in Ohio and moved to Tuscon, Ariz., when she was a child with her mother, father and three siblings. She spent her afternoons playing football with the neighborhood boys and even though she said she was always a tomboy, firefighting did not enter the picture until after high school.

“When I was a child, I actually wanted to be a doctor,” Waters said. “I guess it was my older brother who first got me into firefighting when he took an EMT class.”

Her brother, who is now a teacher, inspired Waters with his talk of EMT training. Before long, during her first year at Northern Arizona University, she did a ridealong with a local EMT unit and fell in love. “It just seemed to fit into what I wanted out of life,” she said. “It was helping people, it was athletic and it was right for me.”

After college, Waters entered the Tuscon Fire Department, a 200-person unit with four women firefighters, including Waters, and a coverage area of approximately 140 square miles. She spent the next five and a half years in the department and was doing well, until she traveled to northern California for the annual Vineman Triathlon seven years ago.

“That's when I fell in love with this area,” she said. “After that, I just knew that I needed to make a move up here happen.”

When Waters heard that a position had opened in Petaluma, she joined 250 other applicants in the race for the position. “I think I was successful because I came here with five and a half years of experience as a paid firefighter and paramedic,” she said. “But the interview was not easy. I had just flown in from Arizona, which made it hectic.”

True to the composure that colleagues say make her such a good firefighter, she aced the interview and was hired shortly thereafter. But, in a department that hadn't had a female firefighter in almost 40 years, there were bound to be some adjustments.

Adequate sleeping quarters had to be arranged, a locking bathroom door was needed and a showering plan had to be implemented.

“With change, there is always a bit of difficulty,” said Sutsos. “But when Andy (Waters) came on, it all worked out fine. My wife made curtains to quarter off the areas. We worked out the bathroom situation so that she could have privacy and it was no problem. It's just common decency and we want to make everyone feel comfortable.”

Other than a few minor adjustments to the firehouse accommodations, little else changed. Waters said that she isn't cut any slack because she is a woman, nor would she want to be. When the crew plays games to see who will have to do the dishes for the night after dinner, Waters is known to be just as competitive as the male firefighters.

“I don't think we could have asked for a better fit,” said Sutsos.

Fire Chief Larry Andersen said that Waters is extremely intelligent, has great street smarts, and is a highly qualified candidate. “She is well respected by her colleagues,” Andersen said.

Fellow firefighters attest to Waters' abilities and physical strength, pointing out that she recently completed a triathlon in France consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 110-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon.

“I did that on my vacation last year,” Waters mentioned casually. “I finished in 14 hours and 33 minutes. The sense of accomplishment was amazing. Really, it's why I do anything.”

Andersen added that Waters has gained a good amount of seniority since coming to the department. “We've replaced 19 firefighters in the past three years, and her subordinates look up to her,” he said.

While Waters continues to train constantly, and genuinely enjoys her time in Petaluma as a firefighter and paramedic, she says she has goals left to accomplish.

“I'd like to eventually become a fire engineer,” said Waters, referring to the engine driver who also controls the water supply during fires. “I never want to stop working and trying to achieve more.”

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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