Fighting fires both on and off the job

Adrian Liang on August 12, 2019
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KatherineCenter_credit_SkylarReeves.jpgWhen Cassie Hanwell gets ready to transfer from her Austin-based fire station to a Boston-area station that hasn’t had a female firefighter in 120 years, her female captain offers some hard-won advice:

“If you make eye contact, make it straight on, like a predator.” And: “No sex with firefighters. Or friends of firefighters. Or relatives of firefighters.” And: “If your captain says to run a mile, run two. If he wants you to deadlift one fifty, do one seventy-five.” As for pull-ups? “Do thirty, at least…. And make sure you can do at least a few one-handed.”

When I spoke with Katherine Center, author of Things You Save in a Fire, about these suggestions from Cassie’s captain, she said that both a female firefighter she interviewed and Internet forums for firefighters offered this type of counsel. “I amped it up a little bit for comedy—‘stare at them like a predator’ was probably not on the Internet—but especially in a physical job like that, you’re being looked at in a suspect way” as a woman. “I think different jobs have different kinds of barriers and different kinds of prejudices that you have to overcome. But I knew with Cassie, it was going to be physical.”

Center’s husband, a volunteer firefighter of 15 years, supplied a number of insights as well. Center explained, “There are all kinds of different things that you need to be able to do if you’re a firefighter, and some of those things involve being big and strong and lifting heavy equipment. But [sometimes] it actually benefits you if you’re not a big hulking man. You can walk on a roof better if you’re smaller, with less danger of falling through if it becomes destabilized. And you can get in through small spaces.”

Another personal experience that Center’s husband shared with her inspired Center: “There was a woman who was trying out at the same time that he was trying out, and he just knew that everybody in the group was looking at her like she was a kind of a charity case. And then she came in and she blew everybody away, and they were all just astonished. That really stuck in my head.”

That story is mirrored in the scene when Cassie shows up at her first day at the new fire station and encounters a mix of disbelief and disregard. In that scene, which is one of my favorites in the book, Cassie shows off her one-armed pull-ups prowess to the amazement of her new coworkers. When I mentioned to Center how much I enjoyed that scene, she laughed. “I can’t even do a two-arm pull-up myself.” But there are a lot of videos of women doing one-armed pull-ups on the Internet—“a phenomenon”—and she studied quite a few to get the physical description right in the book.

While Cassie is well on her way to being the top firefighter at the new station—if anyone would bother to acknowledge it—her personal life is less tidy. She’s living with her estranged mother, who wants to reconnect after leaving Cassie behind when Cassie was 16. Cassie has seen firsthand that romantic love destroys lives, so she isn’t enthusiastic about trying it out. But the other new firefighter at the station, known through most of the book as “the rookie,” is not just Cassie’s competition for a full-time job but also a really good guy that she’s falling for despite all her intentions not to.

Center said, “I think we tend to think that love is ridiculous. The general attitude in the firehouse and Cassie’s general attitude is that all that stuff is just silly, and Hallmark made it up to sell Valentine’s Day cards. As a culture, broadly speaking, we don’t think it’s a real thing, and we’re very hard on love. But I think love is great. I believe in it, and I think that if we would take it a little bit more seriously and value it a little bit more, we could maybe get better at it as a culture: taking care of each other better, and loving each other better, and being the kind of people we need to be to support our loving relationships in our lives…. I think we might be better at love if we treated it like something that was important to pay attention to and important to learn how to be good at.”

A few years ago, Center did a TedX talk called “We Need to Teach Boys to Read Stories about Girls.” She begins the talk relating the story of how when she was in middle school, she and her friends wrote stories about Duran Duran showing up at their house, lost, and asking for directions, and then finally asking the girls to marry them. Center said that she was “a very miserable sixth grade girl. [Those stories] were a way for me to create something exciting and joyful and helpful in my own life.” Now she writes with the goal of sharing those feelings with readers. “I’m trying to write stories that are genuinely hopeful, and that’s kind of hard thing to do. But for me love is a big part of that, because love is very joyful. It gives you something to look forward to. It pulls you towards something good …. It’s been very nourishing for me as a person, and I’m trying to give that to other people too.”

As Cassie learns to open her heart not just to her mother but to the possibility of a relationship with the rookie, Cassie also learns from both how generous real love can be.  

The Amazon Books editors chose Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire as one of the 10 best new books of August. Read, and enjoy.

Author photo by Skylar Reeves


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