As the third of 13 children, Monica Myers has always been part of a big, hard-working family. But at age 45, she’s added 34 brothers: her fellow Aberdeen Fire Department firefighters.
“It’s very much a family atmosphere,” Myers said. “We all have our different personalities, but we have a really good time. A lot of bantering, a lot of fun, but we get work done. It’s a lot of work.”
After volunteering with the Montesano Fire Department, Myers found she loved the work and made up her mind to become a professional firefighter and paramedic.
It wasn’t an easy road. She rode with a private ambulance service to gain experience, went through a rigorous paramedic training program and tried the firefighter exam more than once before overcoming her test-taking anxiety. With the support of her family, friends and mentors, she became the first sister in the Aberdeen Fire brotherhood. She finished her probation period over the summer.
“There’s not a day I don’t love going to work. I’m always excited about what we get to do next. All the calls are different,” she said.
“When she’s on shift, she’s one of our firefighters. That’s probably the highest compliment,” Chief Tom Hubbard said. “She works as an integral part of the team.”
Myers was a small business owner when she first tried her hand as a firefighter. Her brother-in-law, Seattle Fire Lt. David Busz, encouraged her to volunteer.
She was already putting in long hours at All Wrapped Up!, a coffee and gift shop she started in Montesano after home-based gift basket business “was getting to the point where it was taking over the house,” she said.
“He encouraged me to join the Montesano Volunteer Fire Department. And I joined and I loved it,” Myers said.
“It was a little bit of a surprise, but then when you kind of sit back and think about it, it really wasn’t,” her husband, Hoquiam Police Department Chief Jeff Myers said. “It really is the kind of work that fits her personality.”
“For those of us who have had a scary medical episode, when you see those folks from the fire department walk up, it’s a unique sense of safety,” he continued. “That’s her personality, making people feel at ease.”
“The fire service isn’t about an individual, it’s kind of like a team sport,” Monica Myers said. “You always have a teammate. And I really like that about it.”
She sold the business and began to pursue her new vocation full-time, but it honed another skill she brings with her as a firefighter.
“I like to talk to people, I like to deal with people, that’s why the work I’m in right now is good because I get to talk to people and give excellent customer service. … At the end of the day, we’re giving a service to our community.”
Back to school
A mantra from her decade coaching girls basketball and volleyball at Montesano Junior-Senior High School still applied when she went back to school herself. “One of my big things when I coached, the girls can’t say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Anytime someone said ‘I can’t do it’ the whole team had to run laps,” she recalled with a smile.
Even as a volunteer fire lieutenant, an emergency medical technician and an IV tech, “I really didn’t think I would ever be a paramedic. … You have to tell yourself you can do it.”
There’s no substitute for personal drive and commitment, but a strong support network can make all the difference, she said.
“In paramedic school, when I’m sitting down crying and I’m exhausted, I had people saying, ‘No, you can do this. You’re smart enough and you’ll get there.’ And with that, we did,” Myers said.
As a former homeschool student, graduation from paramedic school was a special experience.
“I never got an actual graduation. … That was really fun,” she said.
Myers credited her family with supporting her in everything she’s done, from staying at home with sons Michael and Cameron to starting her own business to becoming a firefighter.
“Jeff is wonderful. Without his support, there’s no way I could have done it,” she said. “There’s not very many people that have the opportunity to follow their dreams and do whatever they want.”
“She’s always supported me through my career, and this was my chance to support her,” Jeff Myers said. “At the end of the day, she did it. She climbed that mountain herself.”
Myers knew from the start she wanted to work for Aberdeen Fire. She knew and respected the department and the firefighters. Still, she tested for Seattle Fire a few times and Aberdeen twice before coming on.
“People give up too easily,” she said. “You’ve got to keep going at it.”
She rode along with Aberdeen during the last phase of her paramedic training.
“That’s how we got to really know her, and know her abilities and her traits,” former Chief Dave Carlberg recalled. “All of the supervisors were telling me what a great selection she would be if the opportunity comes up. So as soon as it did, we snatched her up.”
Myers was Carlberg’s last hire and the first woman to become an Aberdeen firefighter. That it took until 2012 for one to come along was largely due to a dearth of applicants, Carlberg noted.
“The ones that did apply in the past, they just didn’t work out or they didn’t score high enough. She was the first one that met all those criteria and more, and it was an opportunity for us and her,” Carlberg said. “It was really a no-brainer. She brought a lot to the department.”
“Very driven, works hard, and she’s pretty self-motivated, I’ll tell you that,” Battalion Chief Damon Lillybridge said of Myers.
The adjustment period to having a woman join the shift was short, he recalled.
“It’s just a bunch of guys living together, you can imagine how that can be. … I thought that she would be intimidated and there would be huge adjustment period for her. Nope, she knew what she wanted and she had expectations, and she managed it very well,” Lillybridge said. “After working with her a short period of time, we figured it out — this is easy. There’s no problem here at all.”
“Everybody very much enjoys having her there,” he added. “She’s getting the respect of everyone around her.”
Myers herself doesn’t have much to say about being a woman firefighter — she’s just a firefighter proud of her department. “It’s been wonderful, my whole experience with the Aberdeen Fire Department. I’m so glad I got hired by them,” she said. “I’m really proud to be working for them.”
Cops and firefighters
The Myers family has slowly adjusted to having a house divided in the friendly rivalry between police officers and firefighters.
“They’re a pretty good bunch, even though between cops and firemen we give each other a hard time,” Jeff Myers said.
“We always tell them cops became cops because they couldn’t pass the firefighter test,” Monica Myers said. “But we rely on them.”
Now both of them have the experience of waiting at home while the other may be in harm’s way. Having a cohesive team on shift is key in those situations. Myers estimates she has been involved in about nine fires so far.
“They take care of me and they have to trust that I’m going to take care of them as well,” Monica Myers said.
“That makes me feel better. Every third night I’m home by myself, and Aberdeen has a lot of fires,” Jeff Myers said. “I know they work hard together to make sure everyone comes home safe.”
There’s not much overlap between their work since, as a paramedic, Myers isn’t often called for mutual aid outside Aberdeen.
“We actually had a call once … it was right on Myrtle Street, and he was trying to take pictures of me” from the Hoquiam side, she remembered with a laugh.
“I can’t say enough how proud I am of her,” Jeff Myers said. He recalled a presentation she participated in at an elementary school where the students guessed the profession of people in plain clothes.
“They guessed that she was the judge, she was the lawyer,” he said. When she put on her helmet, “the kids were just floored. It was one of those epiphany moments. … There doesn’t need to be a gender barrier. People can do what they want to accomplish if they work at it.”
For anyone who wants to become a firefighter — man or woman, teen or empty-nester — Myers’ advice is the same: Never give up.
“It was a long shot, but it’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I’m fortunate I get to do what I love doing, and not many people can say that.”
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.