Meet Durham's first female battalion chief

Tamala Wilson

February 3, 2010 3:12:55 PM PST
She was told she couldn't be a firefighter, because she was a woman, but a move to Durham changed all that for Tamala Wilson.She is Durham's first female battalion chief.

Twenty years ago, Wilson was fresh out of the fire academy in Durham pursuing her dream of becoming a firefighter, but she says she almost didn't get there.

"My brother, when I was in high school, he was a firefighter and I wanted to join, but they wouldn't let me, they wouldn't let girls be in the fire department in the western North Carolina area," she said.

She taught school for three years, before an ad changed her life.

"When I saw an ad in the paper, after three years of being burnt out, that said women and minorities encouraged to apply, if it hadn't been for that, I probably wouldn't even have messed with it at all," Wilson said. "But that told me, 'oh, maybe they'll take my application seriously.'"

The ad was from Durham. She graduated from the fire academy and into a male-dominated world of firefighting.

"It was very difficult, but I learned very early on that I had to work twice as hard, sometimes to get the same amount of respect from some people," Wilson said.

"She knows how to relate to people and she has that drive for service so those were some very good qualities that helped attract her and help us to be able to hire her to become a firefighter in the very beginning," Durham Fire Department Chief Bruce Pagan said.

Pagan says those qualities brought her greatest professional accomplishment to date - Battalion Chief - the first female in Durham.

"This is a milestone in the history of our fire department," Pagan said.

"It's been a really good 20 year ride so far and I'm happy to be here finally," Wilson said.

Now the biggest adjustment for her is the new uniform.

"I'm used to being dirty and going in where the flames are so that's probably the biggest adjustment is I can't get the nozzle anymore," Wilson said. "I really love this job, I love being in a place to make a difference."

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