SEBRING - It was back in 1989, the year that George H.W. Bush became president, when Sebring Fire Department was poised to hire its first female firefighter.
But by the time the job was offered to Debbie Hawkey that year, she declined because she was pregnant, said Brad Batz, the current fire chief, last week.
Twenty-four years later, Melinda Geer became the first female applicant since then to qualify on the written and physical tests, Batz said.
She began serving last week, Batz said.
Batz said that other women over the years, including a couple this time, applied for a position, but they didn't pass the physical tests or they didn't follow through with the process.
Geer, 41, scored in the top three of 71 applicants, the overwhelming majority being male, Batz said.
When Geer got the job offer, she recalled, she didn't think about being the first female paid firefighter in both Sebring and Highlands County.
"I was extremely excited that I had gotten the job," she said.
Besides Sebring never having had a female firefighter before Geer, Avon Park has yet to hire a female firefighter, said Jason Lister, public safety director. He said there have been female applicants, but none have qualified for the job.
Batz said he is confident that Geer will do a good job as a firefighter.
In seeking the job, Geer, a Port St. Lucie resident, said she was confident she would pass the physical test.
"Physically, I didn't have any doubts about my abilities," she said.
She said she competes in cross fitness events and has played volleyball, softball and basketball.
Geer said that she was working as an accountant, but was open to a change in career. A friend in Arizona who works as a firefighter told her about her job and how much she liked it, she said. The friend thought she would be well-suited to become a firefighter and that made her interested in pursuing the opportunity, Geer said.
Geer graduated last year from the Indian River State College Fire Academy and was the only female graduate in her class, as well as being the oldest graduate, according to a St. Lucie Tribune article.
She said she found out about the Sebring opening.
Since accepting the job, she hasn't experienced any problems from the situation being that all her co-workers are males, she said.
"They've all been very welcoming," she said, adding that they've treated her professionally and that she has received good support from Batz.
Batz said that no changes were made in sleeping quarters in view of hiring the first female firefighter. He said each firefighter has their own sleeping area, which provides some privacy. With the exception of the assistant fire chief, none of the firefighters have complete privacy, as the individual sleeping areas lack doors or curtains in the front.
In principal, he said, he believes that situation creates a more cohesive working unit as the firefighters spend more time together.
Batz said he doesn't anticipate problems coming about, as he has confidence in the professionalism of the firefighters.
"I demand professionalism," he said.
Batz noted that originally the upper part of the fire station served as living quarters for the fire chief and his family. Later, it became a barracks set-up with bunk beds for firefighters, he said. The sleeping quarters have since been remodeled.
One change made since Geer was hired is that a lock was put on the door to one of the bathrooms, he said.
This will ensure privacy for all firefighters, he said.