Like mother, like daughter. That old adage means something unexpected when it applies to Debbie Powers and Jenna Norwood, fire fighters at Olympia Fire House 3 located at Boulevard Road SE and 22nd Avenue SE . They rarely work the same shift, because if Norwood is on duty at the station, Powers is working her second job — being a grandmother.
Powers is committed to watching her grandchildren while her daughter works for two reasons: first, she treasures the time with Callaway, age 2 ½, and Coralyn, 4 months. Secondly, she is proud to support her daughter’s career in a male-dominated field.
“Jenna was eight years old when I first thought about becoming a firefighter. It actually started when I burned my kitchen down,” Powers laughs. “I was busy taking care of her younger brother, who was a baby, and a pan of oil caught fire on the stove. The firefighters who came to put the fire out were so nice to me. They calmed me down and told me I wasn’t in trouble — that accidents happen. That was my first experience with firefighters as people.”
Powers shared her positive story with neighbors and friends and her name and history as a collegiate athlete made its way to the upper echelons of Olympia Fire Department leadership. A captain told her, “We’re looking for diversity. You should try out.”
Powers said, “Yeah right.”
Then she thought about it for a while.
Twenty-eight years ago, firefighters were still called firemen, and diversity was more about gender than race. Women who want to become firefighters must pass the same test as men regardless of their smaller stature and body-type limitations for lifting weight. Despite the challenges, Powers successfully passed the written and physical tests. She has spent her entire 28-year career at Fire Station 3. Norwood grew up at the fire house visiting her mother and the other firefighters.
“My mom would come to my school for assemblies wearing all of her gear and driving the ladder truck. I was so proud of her. All of the other kids couldn’t believe she was my mom,” Norwood says. “I grew up knowing the schedule of a firefighter. I knew that Christmas wouldn’t always happen on Christmas. It may have to be a different day because of the schedule.”
When she became an adult, Jenna decided she wanted to take the test to become a firefighter. Living in Issaquah at the time, she trained quietly while her mother kept the news to herself in Olympia. In order to qualify to take the written and physical test, Norwood devoted herself to grueling training. Petite in stature, Norwood knew that her strength and agility scores would be her strongest areas.
The test, which replicates the responsibilities of a firefighter in a crisis, began with three minutes of stair stepping with 70 pounds on her back. Some trainees stop at that point, but Norwood continued with the test. She put on 50 pounds of equipment, pulled the fire hose unassisted, used a mallet to slam a bullseye and dragged a dead-weight dummy. Norwood passed the physical test and then earned the highest score on the written test.
“The word got out in Olympia that Jenna was going through the testing. Everyone asked me how she was doing. Even though I was bursting to say something, I said I didn’t know — even though I did,” Powers says.
Norwood returned to Olympia and, after spending time as a volunteer firefighter, also earned a spot in Fire House 3. It is rare that the pair work the same shift, but when they do, the other members of the house like it. They recognize that the pair makes the composition of their team special. They know it is history.
Becoming part of the Fire House 3 family fulfilled both women’s career aspirations, but they looked for other goals and other ways of testing their mental and physical strength. First Powers, and then Norwood, qualified to participate in the World Police and Fire Games held annually all over the world.
The Games are an Olympic-style competition with 10,000 athletes representing law enforcement, firefighters and officers from corrections, border protection, immigration and customs from over 70 countries competing in 60 different sporting events. The United States has hosted the Games several times and other host countries include Canada, Spain, Australia, Sweden and Northern Ireland.
“It is just like the Olympics, but we have so many more athletes in events. We march in stadiums and represent our countries. It is amazing,” Powers comments. She attended the games in Sweden, Ireland and Canada, winning gold medals in free-style swimming and track.
Norwood attended the 2013 Games in Belfast, Ireland, and competed in the Toughest Competitor Alive event. Racing from one event to the next, Norwood completed a timed pull-ups competition, a 5K race, an obstacle course, a shot-put event, a 100-meter swim and dash and a dead leg rope climb.
“The dead rope climb was awful. My legs could only dangle. I had to pull myself just by my arms,” Norwood grimaces.
“She won the bronze,” her mother interjects.
“Mom, I didn’t. I just missed it,” Norwood frowns.
“Yes, you did. They didn’t count one of your pull ups. You did win,” Powers says, like any mother would.
A firefighter across town in Lacey, Eric Hooft, competed with both Powers and Norwood as part of a male/female team at the World Games. Although he was partners with them twenty years apart, he refused to comment on which woman was the better athlete.
“I’m a person short on words. So I can only say, they are equal point for point. I was proud to work with both of them.” Powers and Norwood hoot with laughter when they hear Hooft’s words.
Mother and daughter work opposite shifts, 24 hours on and 48 hours off. They hand off the babies, the car seats and the diaper bag like pulling the fire hose in tandem. Together the two women provide seamless care for the youngest family members and are there, vigilant, in case of an emergency.
“We might be the only mother-daughter firefighters serving in the same house in the whole country. There’s no way to know; the information isn’t available. But, I do know one thing – here’s the third-generation woman firefighter coming up,” Powers says as she squeezes little Coralyn who chuckles as mother, daughter and granddaughter smile proudly in front of the Fire House 3 ladder truck.