I stumbled upon the job of firefighting at the age of 16. I say stumbled because at the time, it seemed like a random occurrence that I found myself in a fire house. In reality, it was the path I was always meant to walk down. I tackled that job with a passionate tenacity that came from knowing I had found what I was meant for, but I soon realized that things weren’t as they seemed. As I uncovered the truth about the culture I was now immersed in, I learned it wasn’t the dignified and professional atmosphere I had imagined.
I chased after my new dream of being a firefighter fiercely, and caught up with it deep inside this world of flashing lights and adrenaline. There, I found myself in a unique environment where I was the exact opposite of what was accepted. By their standards I was too short, too light weight, too dumb, and mostly too much of a girl. They told me that in order for my existence to be tolerated, I would have to conform to what they thought a young girl in a fire house should be. I am eternally grateful that at sixteen, I knew who I was and who I would never be. I knew I would never be one of those girls who got passed from guy to guy, just to be accepted, for instance.
The firefighters I was working with constantly forced me to re-establish myself. I was constantly asked to perform tasks I have never heard of before, in front of the entire company. I was taunted with punishment for rules that never existed until the day I “broke” them. When I walked through the station people silently moved out of my way, as if they got too close they would catch whatever disease I had that made me such a misfit. They placed the burden of our crumbling fire company onto my shoulders. They pushed me to within an inch of where I thought my limit was and then they pushed me past it. I have learned that past your “limit” is where true triumph really lies.
With the corruption and rampant sexism in the fire company causing division within the membership, the position of high esteem in which I held it began to disintegrate around me. The profession of firefighting, however, remained the brilliant beacon in the darkness, a compass pointing the way. I grew in relation to what was required of me. I became strong enough to carry my passion in the world that was trying to take it. After three years, I finally left when the safety of the community was compromised by the division within the fire company.
In 2007 I took a year off between high school and college to get myself back together. This was a year of struggle. I struggled with myself more than anything because they put so much doubt in me and my abilities in an attempt to make me leave. I struggled with a loss of self worthiness. The job that made me feel my worthiest had let me down. I gave firefighting my heart and my identity and when that world collapsed around me; my identity crumbled too.
When I was living consistently outside my comfort zone, I had one peaceful thought. Maybe the point to the entire struggle had nothing to do with me. Maybe the point to this story was simply to get through it, and be the person with these experiences so I can share them with others.
In 2008 I found myself in the city of San Francisco. Previously my mom had come across an article in Newsweek, detailing the career of Chief Joanne Hayes-White of the San Francisco Fire Department. I wrote her a rather desperate email asking for any type of guidance for how to survive as a female in the job. A few phone calls later, I found myself on a plane to San Francisco. The Chief had invited me to come out and spend a week with her and her firefighters, to see that women were accepted as firefighters and how a professionally run fire department operates.
In that beautiful city I found the pieces of myself that were still stuck in that first fire house. Those San Francisco firefighters welcomed me into their firehouses because I loved the same job they loved; nothing more, nothing less. Their warm smiles restored my faith in people. Now in 2011 with another visit to that city behind me, those relationships are now stronger than ever. I am being taught by game changers, true professionals.
After my first trip to San Francisco and during my first year of college I started writing what became Where Hope Lives, a memoir. I had hope somewhere deep inside of me that I could find a way to tell my story. Since typing that first line from my journal entries I found a new passion to dedicate myself to—sharing the story with other people. I self-published the story completely on my own and recently formed a publishing company, Hope Lives Publishing, which one day will bring other meaningful and inspirational projects to life. Because learning how to run this business requires all of my time, efforts, and finances, I am not able to fight fires with a station I can call my own, but that day will come again soon. Firefighting is with me always. I will forever love the job because it requires me to be nothing but my best.
I have been the first at something – the first young woman at my small town fire house to approach firefighting as a professional. It was extraordinarily demanding and sometimes the pressure seemed too great, but it was also the best and coolest thing imaginable. Instead of settling for the less-than-ideal standard of the people that had come before me, I was able to set the precedent for the people that will come next. Once I realized the power and gift of that situation, I was able to free myself from the many constraints of the stereotype forced on me as a young woman in the fire service. Maybe you aren’t the very first at doing what you love. But you can be the first to do it your way.
Desire is everything. What you believe in and your drive to do it matters. That will hold you up when societal pressures want to hold you down. Live in your belief. Dream of the places your passion will take you. Learn everything you can about it. Share your love with others in the biggest way. Find other people who inspire you. Ask them what keeps them going. Become your version of the best because it is the most rewarding way to make a place for yourself in the world.
Ali Warren received her Associates Degree in Fire Science from Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania. She now works sixty hours a week at two jobs in order to bring her new book, Where Hope Lives, to fruition. She plans to return to college to complete her Bachelors degree. For now, she plans to travel the country and share inspiration with others searching for ways to reach their dream. Where Hope Lives is available for purchase at AliWarrenHope.com as well as on Amazon.com.