May 2018

Women Firefighters: “She believed she could. So she did.”

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

t might sound silly, but it reminds me of dancing. We practice together as a team. We know our role, our place. But when we get on stage, there is no talking; maybe we can’t see each other, but everyone moves together, choreographed.”

It was Tiffany Torma’s second shift with Bluffton Township Fire District (BTFD). She had graduated recruit school one week prior and here she was, sitting in station 37, happy to talk, but admittedly nervous—not about the questions, but about the possibility of the tones going off during our chat, what her first call might be, and if instinct would kick in naturally (as everyone said it would).

When I started this story, in my head, two and half year ago, there was one female firefighter in Bluffton. I met her on her first shift, and the seed was planted. But, there would be multiple classes of new recruits before the story came together. Today, four women wear the badge of the Bluffton Township Fire District. That is remarkable.

In the last 20 years, the number of women in the fire service has doubled nationally. That may seem like a large number, but the fact remains that across the country merely 4 percent of firefighters are women. In Bluffton, the number hovers around the same mark. National statistics and historical data tell us that the “traditional” firefighter is a white male. In Bluffton, the BTFD’s leadership is trying to tackle that misperception head-on. Since 2015, they’ve seen a two percent increase in the number of female applicants. More notably, since 2015, the number of female applicants who have passed the physical and written test has doubled (from 20 percent to 40 percent). The District attributes this to the Applicant Preparation Program (APP), an introductory program developed in 2016 to take non-traditional candidates and introduce them to the tasks and skills taught in the fire academy.


Tiffany Torma
Tiffany Torma is in her 30s, one of the oldest recruits in her class, and this is her second career. When she was laid off from her job as a paralegal last year, the first thing she did was drive to the closest fire station (in Savannah) to see if they were hiring. It wasn’t the first time she considered the fire service. She had explored the possibility years before, got excited about it, but was talked out of it. When she lost her job though, she considered it a sign. Savannah Fire wasn’t hiring, so she continued to Southside Fire. They weren’t hiring either, but they told her about the volunteer drill class they offered, and she attended the next one, and the next, learning everything she could about the fire service. She trained with them anytime she could and was prepared when she tested with Bluffton.

A single mom of three (Hannah, Hayden, and Hunter), Torma hired a nanny just two days before graduation, when she still hadn’t been assigned to a shift. (“You’re hired, but I don’t know what days you’ll work yet,” was a weird conversation, she said.) She’s had to put her trust in someone else to handle her household 24 hours at a time while she’s taking care of others. And that is what she is most excited about: taking care others and making a difference.

Torma didn’t grow up with a large family, and she feels like the fire service fills that void—the team, the family unit. After 11 weeks in recruit school and less than 48 hours under her belt as a probationary firefighter, she’s confident that she’s found her home. “This is it; I am not doing anything else. I am here. I’ve done it.” And, about that dancing? Salsa dancing with her boyfriend is how she blows off steam.

C2: What book is currently on your nightstand?
TT: Most often, the books on my nightstand are my children’s books that we read for bedtime. I do also have “You Are a Badass” by Jen Sincero on the side of my bed, along with my newest addition, the EMT textbook

C2: What word do you use most?
TT: I’m not sure I have a “most used” word. I am guiding my children all the time so “you can do it” or “c’mon, let’s go,” and maybe “knock it off” would be the top most used phrases.

C2: What goes through your mind as you drive to work each morning?
TT: As I’m arriving at the station, I hear “You’re a firefighter” run through my head. I am so proud and excited and honored to be able to call myself a Bluffton firefighter.

C2: And on the way home the next morning?
TT: On my way home, I’m always excited to go see my little ones. I can’t wait to hear about their days, but if I’m being honest, I always think about how crazy my house will be when I arrive and how much laundry I must do. I’m always running through mental “things-to-do” lists. That’s honest.

C2: What is your most marked characteristic?
TT: My most marked characteristic is probably that I have heart. I will never give up. I never let life get the best of me, and no matter how things stack against me, I will always push through.

C2: What woman has had the biggest impact on your life?
TT: I have to say that the woman who has had the biggest impact on my life is my mother. She is as tough as they come and is the reason I am the person I am. She taught me to never give up and always give it your all. She has always been there for me through the good and the bad and I love her very much. She has always been my best friend but has never let our friendship get in the way of pulling “mom rank.”


Veronica Gutierrez
Also a graduate of the March 2018 recruit class, Veronica Gutierrez is a self-proclaimed people person. She knew early in life that that her passion was public service. On getting through recruit school she said, “I am an individual; I like to sit back and read a situation.

And with 21 recruits, I was able to pull something from everyone: I like this. I don’t like that.” To that end, the different personalities among her instructors was also crucial to the process. “Knots were my challenge. I couldn’t get knots. And then one instructor showed me a different way, and suddenly I got knots.”

With a para-military background, it was a smooth transition into the fire service. Understanding the structure and the importance of attention to detail and respect was paramount. “You can’t be too good for anything,” she said. You have to be humble and open to change and willing to ask questions, “Okay, what is changing? Why is it changing? Got it.”

At home, her five-year old daughter Delfina makes sure there is no shortage of Barbies and books to read when Gutierrez isn’t on shift. To escape and get a little “me time” Gutierrez turns to refinishing furniture. The process of turning something old into something new again is therapeutic, and she admits to “geeking out” over a good antique find, like the dresser she got for a steal not long ago.

C2: What book is currently on your nightstand?
VG: I don’t have a book currently on my night stand, because I am not much a novel reader. I do, however, like to read current event articles or articles that are a little more informative rather than gossip type articles.

C2: What word do you use most?
VG: I have a tendency to use the word “fabulous” a lot.

C2: What goes through your mind as you drive to work each morning?
VG: What the potential calls may be for that day, and what my primary role is for whatever type calls we have. It is not only important that I know what my responsibilities and obligations are to the community I serve, but also to the members of my crew. As one of the newer members to Bluffton FD, I feel this is an important step to do before coming into work, because it allows my thought process to be where it needs to be when the tones go.

C2: And on the way home the next morning?
VG: As of right now, there hasn’t been a call that has made me stop and think or pulled my thoughts away from what I’m doing. I think about what shenanigans Delfina and I can get into on my days off, or what I need to get accomplished in my off time.

C2: What is your most marked characteristic?
VG: I would have to say my ability to be empathetic to others and their situations.

C2: What woman has had the biggest impact on your life?
VG: Without a doubt, my mother, Michele, aka Shelly (she hates when we call her that). The women in my family are very strong-willed and are very much go-getters. It seemed, growing up, she drove us (my siblings and me) crazy with her “pushy” personality, and she never accepted anything remotely close to failure from us. However, now as a mother, I understand why she pushed us so hard to be successful, and I am very thankful for that today. The drive and motivation to do what my heart wants that my mother instilled in me is something that I intend to pass to Delfina whole-heartedly. Even though I am now an adult, Shelly continues to push me to do what I have set in my heart/mind to do, and to never let anyone tell me I can’t. She makes me crazy, but I would be lost without her.


Missy Keller
A Hilton Head Island native, Keller was a Hall of Fame athlete at Hilton Head Island High School, attended University of Alabama on a soccer scholarship, and then moved to New York City with a couple suitcases and $1,000. There, she launched a successful career, first as a paralegal and then with brand giant Wolf & Wilhelmine, where a serendipitous twist brought her back to her roots. While working on a story about former college athletes, she combined a trip home with an interview with Dave Adams, fellow Hilton Head Island High alum, Clemson track star, and Bluffton firefighter.

She saw an advertisement in the local paper that BTFD was hiring, and having already exceeded the 32-year-old age cut-off for the FDNY, she mentioned her interest (a goal that had always been in the back of her mind) to Adams, who said, “Apply, apply.”

One year into her tenure with BTFD, she knows she is exactly where she belongs. “I felt lost in New York, not fulfilled … now I am part of a team.” Again. And clearly where she thrives. Even though she can’t prepare for 90 percent of the scenarios she’ll encounter, Keller looks to her colleagues and department leaders to set the example and show her how. Of her crew at Station 30 she said, “There is trust, and I know they have my six.”

A desire to serve is what led Keller back home and into a career that can be challenging. “I have a love/hate relationship with the mental aspects of the job,” she said. “This job is to save lives. And when I am on the side of Highway 278, tired, drenched in sweat, hoping that whoever I just sent with EMS will be okay, I know that I did everything in my power to help.”

C2: What book is currently on your nightstand?
MK: I am more of a quotes person. I read quotes a lot, and Christopher Poindexter’s Naked Human is the one I pull out most frequently.

C2: What word do you use most?
MK: “Shonuff.” So much it was my nickname in college.

C2: What goes through your mind as you drive to work each morning?
MK: What song choice should be my feels today? I usually make a phone call before every shift on the way to work.

C2: And on the way home the next morning?
MK: Depends on the shift. Every shift is different at Station 30; no two are alike. But mostly I replay the shift calls and what I could have done better or differently.

C2: What is your most marked characteristic?
MK: Loyalty, determination and passion (taken from a survey of lots of friends).

C2: What woman has had the biggest impact on your life?
MK: I feel like this question is an injustice to all the women in my life, both real and non-real (celebrities). The top real-life three, in no particular order: Momma, Beth (older sister), and Cathy (my bestie).


Whitney Brady
As the veteran woman in the department, Whitney Brady has nearly three years’ experience under her belt. She’s been assigned to multiple officers, each who has their own routine and their own list of dos and don’ts. She’s been at traditionally slow stations and the busiest stations, and has savored it all because she finally feels like she is making a difference. Also in her second career, Brady came to the fire service with eyes wide open. A single mother to son Kayden, she knows that she can’t bring work home. She uses the gym as her stress reliver, and Kayden keeps her busy with fishing excursions, scavenger hunts and board games.

For a time, Brady was the only woman in the department, but never grimaced at the notion of being “one of the guys” or part of the “brotherhood.”

“This is a family, a tradition, why change that?” she asked. “You don’t want to segregate yourself here. If you are physically and mentally able to do the job, you are the most qualified candidate. You had the drive to make it happen.”

Flexibility is the most valuable characteristic for every firefighter to possess. “And a strong stomach,” Brady chimed in. A nod to her sense of humor, which is also crucial. But in the end, “There is no end to new information; you have to be motivated every day to maintain an open-mind and to continue learning.”

C2: What book is currently on your nightstand?
WB: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.

C2: What word do you use most?
WB: Hungry. In the context of I am hungry.

C2: What goes through your mind as you drive to work each morning?
WB: On the way to work, I typically think about what I plan on accomplishing for the day, whether that is specific training we are already scheduled to complete for the day, a topic I feel that I need to refresh myself on, or simply station tasks.

C2: And on the way home the next morning?
WB: I generally leave work at work, and I focus on what I need to accomplish at home and for/with my child.

C2: What is your most marked characteristic?
WB: I would say my most marked characteristic is my authenticity. What you see is what you get.

C2: What woman has had the biggest impact on your life?
WB: My mother.

Dancer, antique geek, athlete, mom. Firefighters. Together, turning the tide in the Bluffton Township Fire District, proving to all of us that women can do anything.

Strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.

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