'I'll never, ever, ever forget this': First woman firefighter in Wichita honored 40 years later
WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) - Wichita's first female firefighter was honored Wednesday morning by the members of the Wichita Fire Department and the city's first female fire chief.
Rebecca Downum Chandler was honored for her part as a trailblazer for women in Wichita as the city's first female firefighter.
Chandler first joined the department in 1983 at the age of 23. Now, 40 years later, she was surprised at Station 1, the place of her first assignment, in downtown Wichita with the help of her husband. The couple also celebrate their 40th anniversary Wednesday.
Chandler's husband told her last week to reserve the whole day for a surprise. She said when she and her husband arrived at the station, she was surprised and overcome with emotion.
"I'm very surprised, I had no idea this was going to happen," she said. "I'm just so excited I'm trembling."
Chandler was given a plaque that she received while she was working for the department recognizing her accomplishment as the first female firefighter. The plaque was originally presented to Chandler by her chief at the time, Chief Jim Sparr. Except this time, the token of accomplishment was presented by Chief Tammy Snow, the city's first woman fire chief.
"It's an honor for me to meet her," Chief Snow said. "What an honor for her to pioneer this opportunity for women."
After 40 years since being brought on as the first woman firefighter, Chandler said the world still a long way to go before we reach full equality for women in and out of the workforce.
"Women still don't get equality, women still get underpaid from what men get paid," she told KAKE. "Even if they do get paid the same, they have to do way over and above what men have to do to prove themselves. I've always been a women's advocate, still am, and will be until my dying breath."
Founded in 1886, the Wichita Fire Department didn't see its first woman firefighter for 97 years, when Chandler came onto the scene in March of 1983. The first woman firefighter in the country was hired in 1973 in North Carolina.
Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple was also in attendance on Wednesday and said both Chandler and Chief Snow are an inspiration to the City of Wichita.
"I think having Rebecca and Chief Snow here really hammers home the fact that in Wichita, opportunities are for everyone," Mayor Whipple said.
The only thing that could have made this day better, Chandler says, is her former chief, Rick McDonald, who died last year.
"This would have been the icing on the cake today, if he could have been here," Chandler said. "I know he's in heaven saying, 'Way to go Bec.'"
Chandler remembered the most difficult part of her training, when she had to pull a 35-foot ladder and raise it onto a wall. Although it was a difficult task, she said that was the moment she gained the respect she needed from her fellow firefighters.
"When I did that, everybody in this station came up to me and said just said, 'I had no idea, I just knew you couldn't do it,' And that really won them over. They have to know that when you're with them, you have the capability of getting in there and dragging their butt out if they need someone to drag them out," she said. "That's all it took."
Chandler says it was an amazing experience to be honored and even got a bit emotional thinking about her old station. She said she couldn't wait to tell her grand kids about it.
"I'll never, ever, ever forget this, never," Chandler said.