Woman hired as firefighter in ’84 broke barriers

Among 9 females who joined department, she is 1st to retire

Recently retired Toledo firefighter/EMT Kathy Mayer says attitudes have definitely shifted during her 28 years on the job.
Recently retired Toledo firefighter/EMT Kathy Mayer says attitudes have definitely shifted during her 28 years on the job.

Kathy Mayer doesn’t see herself as someone who makes waves, let alone someone who makes history.

Friends describe her as modest, a woman who hates being the center of attention.

Though she is reluctant to admit it, Ms. Mayer has played an important role in breaking barriers in Toledo’s work force.

One of the very first females hired to be a Toledo firefighter, she was part of a 1984 class that included nine women — ending the department’s 146 years of having only men in the ranks. She recently retired from the fire department after 28 years on the job.

Of those initial female hires, she is the first one to make it to retirement. Two others are still working; the other six left the department over the years for a variety of reasons.

In 1984, Toledo was under a federal court order to hire more minority firefighters — to match the city’s racial demographics — and city officials presumed it was only a matter of time before they would be sued for not hiring women too.

Ms. Mayer was studying at the University of Toledo to be a teacher when a friend of her father’s suggested she take advantage of the city’s move to diversify its safety forces. The idea of becoming a firefighter intrigued her.

“I didn’t really want to be a teacher,” she said. Firefighting “sounded like a challenge. I’m sure you remember when you were young ... you want to save the world.”

Ms. Mayer was undaunted by the physical rigors of the job. A self-described “jock,” she played basketball and volleyball at Woodward High School and was a runner too.

Women, she recalled, were subject to the same physical agility tests as male firefighters, including rolling a fire hose, pounding a sledgehammer on a target more than 50 times, climbing several flights of stairs in firefighting gear while carrying a hose, and also carrying a 100-pound weight.

In a 1984 Blade article about the new hires, Ms. Mayer stated she was glad there would be nine women starting on the job together, instead of just one or two.

“I feel safer now. I think we will do OK,” she said at the time.

The introduction of women to a department that, at the time, had more than 500 men was fraught with complications, both known and unknown.

“We’ll probably have some problems we’ve never had before,” one fire lieutenant told The Blade just weeks before the women were sworn in. “We can joke and rib and swear at guys in ways we wouldn’t do with a woman. This is not a church; they’ll have to understand that.”

Ms. Mayer recalled that fire stations weren’t set up for co-ed living, with no separate shower area or bathrooms for women. She said she simply didn’t shower after returning from fire runs during her first few years on the job.

She also couldn’t get uniforms to fit her 5-foot, 3-inch frame. “I was wearing my own jeans, because they said they couldn’t find uniforms to fit me,” she recalled.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “There were many people that thought that.”

But Ms. Mayer persevered and became a paramedic as well within her first several years with the department.

“I was lucky enough to have fantastic partners. All of them are still in my life,” she said.

Steve Kline, who worked as Ms. Mayer’s partner for eight years, said he had never had a female partner before working with Ms. Mayer, though because they knew each other before being paired up, he wasn’t apprehensive about working closely with her.

“She’s a very hard worker. She never wanted anyone to think she wasn’t carrying her end. She always carried 110 percent of her end,” Mr. Kline said.

Another of her partners was her brother, Ralph “Dave” Balogh, who became a firefighter in 1998 and a paramedic in 2001.

“She’s a very good paramedic,” Mr. Balogh said. “Confident. [Knows] her job well.”

Paramedics often work in high-stress situations dealing with life-or-death emergencies, but one day that stands out for Ms. Mayer was Feb. 13, 1998, the day of Joseph Chappell's deadly rampage. Chappell killed two women, stabbed two children, and shot at two firefighters while leading police on a chase through busy Toledo streets during the afternoon rush hour.

The day, a Friday the 13th, began like any other. Ms. Mayer recalls she was working out in the gym area at Fire Station 18 on Lewis Avenue when the call came in.

She told her boyfriend, who had stopped by the station to say hello, that she would be right back. But she quickly realized the situation’s gravity when her crew reached the home of Vivian Morris, one of Chappell’s victims.

Ms. Mayer and several other paramedics began to drive Ms. Morris and her two children, whom Chappell had repeatedly stabbed, to a hospital. But Chappell was still at large.

“I remember a van driving alongside us,” Ms. Mayer recalled. “And I remember [her partner Lt. Jeffrey] Cook saying, ‘Oh my God, he’s got a gun.’ ”

She then heard a shotgun blast, the sound of Lieutenant Cook being shot by Chappell.

Ms. Mayer provided care to her partner that day, though with Lieutenant Cook coughing up blood as they sped to the hospital, she feared he would die.

“I can still see it in my head,” she said, sitting at the kitchen table in her West Toledo home.

After 28 years on the job, however, Ms. Mayer decided it was time to retire.

“I’m glad that I had the job,” she said. “I hope I did OK. I always tried my hardest.”

Ms. Mayer’s brother, Mr. Balogh, said she and the other women paved the way for the fire department’s current female work force.

“They [the women] had to pass the same physical agility tests that the men take. But they got a lot of resistance, some of it was downright nasty. ... Now, there’s quite a few women, it’s quite common. I couldn’t even tell you how many women there are.”

Of the department’s 509 members today, 53 are women, or just more than 10 percent, according to Jen Sorgenfrei, spokesman for Toledo.

“Definitely, there have been significant changes since she came on the force,” Ms. Sorgenfrei said. All fire stations now have separate lockers, showers, and bathrooms for women.

“It’s not just about fairness to racial minorities and women,” said Joe Tafelski, executive director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc., the organization that started filing lawsuits in the 1970s over the lack of minorities in the city’s police and fire departments. “It is important ... that these authority figures represent a cross-section of the community.”

Ms. Mayer, 51, agrees that attitudes toward women on the job have shifted during her nearly three decades in the department.

“You ‘didn’t belong there’ when I came on,” she said. “It’s just an everyday thing now, it’s not anything out of the ordinary.”

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6091, or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.