University of Notre Dame Fire Department brings on first female firefighters
Michelle Woolverton and Christi Shibata were sworn in recently as the department’s first ever full-time female firefighters since its inception 140 years ago
By Allie Kirkman
South Bend Tribune, Ind.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two women are smashing the University of Notre Dame Fire Department‘s gender barrier.
Michelle Woolverton and Christi Shibata were sworn in recently as the department’s first-ever full-time female firefighters since its inception 140 years ago. Woolverton, 42, started with NDFD in August and Shibata, 37, in July.
“I never would have thought that my dream was actually going to come true,” Woolverton said, “and it has.”
NDFD Fire Chief Bruce Harrison said he has been “exceptionally pleased” with the work Woolverton and Shibata have contributed to the team so far.
Having the two join the oldest university fire department in the United States has been a blessing, Harrison said. He said the firefighters serve as “good representatives for this fire department,” bringing him optimism for the future.
“You look for people who have heart and passion for the job. You have to have the right attitude, empathy and a genuine concern for people and want to serve,” Harrison said, pointing out that Woolverton and Shibata bring all those traits to the table.
“We didn’t give them the job. They earned the opportunity to be firefighters.”
While Woolverton may be new to the job, she isn’t new to the university.
She joined NDFD in 2010 as an on-call EMT while attending the paramedic program at Ivy Tech Community College and the fire academy at Clay Fire Territory. After graduating from both, she joined the university’s Building Services department, where she held the supervisor position for nine years.
Throughout that time, Woolverton said, she never dropped her focus on working in the fire industry. She was determined to land a job as a firefighter and kept her eyes peeled on any opportunity that opened up.
“I just love helping people. Whether it’s just holding an old lady’s hand, nothing wrong with her, you just need to talk to her. Or it’s more serious and you have to save someone’s life. You are that person that gets to have an impact on them and help them through whatever it is they’re going through,” Woolverton said. “To be able to do that is a gift and not everyone has it. I know I have it. And so, I need to use that.”
Today, Woolverton holds a number of state certifications including Firefighter I and II, EMT-B, Hazmat Responder and Vehicle and Machinery Rescue Operations.
Moving into the station has been a transition for Woolverton and all the firefighters before her, but she said she feels right at home with the guys.
“It’s kind of weird, because we started and I realized that it was a huge change for the guys here. Forever it’s always just been the men and now they have us coming in and making these new teams,” Woolverton said. “But, it’s like we don’t skip a beat. They don’t treat us any different.”
Like her comrade, Shibata — the sister of Keri Kei Shibata, chief of the Notre Dame Police Department — also isn’t a stranger to the university.
She joined the NDFD as a part-time firefighter in 2018. She graduated from the Clay Fire Recruit Academy in 2016 and has continued to work for the local fire department part-time as a firefighter.
Before she joined the fire service, Shibata treated patients as a physical therapist assistant in an outpatient orthopedic physical therapy clinic in Petoskey, Mich., for eight years.
“I wanted to get out of the clinic life and get more into emergency medicine. I was looking for a career change. I just didn’t know how to get my foot into the door anywhere in the fire service up there (in Michigan),” Shibata said. “My sister, Keri Kei, lives down here, and when I mentioned it to her, she’s like, ‘Well, would you consider moving down here and becoming a firefighter?’”
After meeting the university’s fire chief and participating in a couple of ridealongs with the department, that’s exactly what she did. Today, Shibata is certified in Firefighter I and II and EMT-B.
Shibata’s passion for helping others started when she was a kid, looking up to her dad who served as a Michigan State Trooper.
“We would drive by somebody pulled off the side of the road and I’d be like, ‘Dad, can we stop and help them?’” Shibata recalls. “I always wanted to be the one who can lend a helping hand and reach out when somebody needs it. … I want to be the person on the front lines, helping people get through some of the worst days of their lives.”
The Notre Dame Fire Department has 18 full-time and 40 paid on-call firefighters responsible for responding to more than 2,000 incidents a year. The agency serves three colleges and provides mutual aid to the South Bend and Clay fire departments.
When the first responders aren’t rushing to an emergency, they are active on campus, participating in student-centered activities from football games to residence hall seminars.
“You meet a lot of people and create relationships with the students and families,” Woolverton said, adding that being a female has also helped in forming relationships with students who may find themselves needing someone to play the “motherly role.”
“Having a female can provide a better way to connect with a lot of the female (students) here,” Woolverton said. “Unfortunately, sometimes students get drunk here and a little out of hand. Having a female here to step in to kind of nurture and take care (of the students) can help. Women are just wired different.”
Of the approximately 1.16 million firefighters in the United States, 7% are women, according to a 2017 report by the National Fire Protection Association. Only 4% of career (full-time) firefighters are female firefighters.
Harrison said he finds the low numbers nationally alarming, but he “doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why that is.” Instead, his time goes toward managing and leading a successful team of firefighters, which involves selecting the right candidates for the job.
“In this case, I feel like we hired firefighters. I feel like we hired good candidates,” Harrison said. “That’s the direction we’re going and I am very excited about all the people we just hired. Christi and Michelle are part of that excitement.”
Woolverton and Shibata say they have a lot to learn and are looking forward to what the future has in store.
“Don’t be scared to try something new and don’t be scared to do something wrong the first time. That’s all part of the learning process,” Shibata said as a piece of advice for other women pursuing firefighter careers. “Just jump in there and get as involved as you can.”
“You are going to fail and fail and fail, but it’s what you take away from that moment to build for the next one,” Woolverton said. “Both of us, we’ve screwed up immensely. But, it’s about what you take from that and move on that builds you.”
©2019 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)