Standing at 5’5" and weighing 122 lbs, 68-year-old Andrea Peterson isn’t what you’d envision a firefighter to look like. But that didn't stop the former medical transcriptionist from pursuing her childhood dream in her 60s. Peterson -- who works at her northern New England village’s fire department while mentoring women who want to become firefighters as well -- spoke with Huff/Post50's associate editor, Anthonia Akitunde, about the two events that put her on the path to become a firefighter.
When I was a child, my mother and I were trapped in a burning building in Los Angeles. Mom was cooking something and the next thing I knew there was this fireball. We were forced to sit on the window ledge out on the second floor because the one door out was blocked. When the fire department guys came, they said, "Throw the kid down!" I thought, "Wow, I can actually jump out a window!" I didn’t know enough to be scared.
The [firemen] caught [us] and I remember looking up at these guys and thinking, “Yes, this is what I want to do when I grow up” with that dead certainty that children have. I was a little red headed, runty, feisty kid then. I remember standing there and saying, “I’m gonna be a firemen just like you!” They laughed [and] said, “You’ll be a good mommy, you’ll be a good teacher, maybe you’ll be a nurse, but you can never be a fireman.”
I had to wait a lifetime to be the real me. I had a very strict childhood where I didn’t have my own thoughts and couldn’t do much of anything that I wanted. I was always needing to defend everything that I dared to do that didn’t fit a pattern of what women were supposed to be in the ‘60s.
I went to college to get a degree in aviation technology. I was the only woman in the class. It was an advanced pilot seminar; I can still see it to this day. I was seated and had the distinct feeling that someone was staring at me from behind. I turned around and looked and there was this very handsome man. We looked at each other and didn’t need to say a word. [Dennis and I] were together four years in a very committed relationship before we had the official wedding [in 1979].
It was quite an epic 31 years. [Dennis] was a very sick man. He was a Vietnam War veteran and pilot; he transported that dreadful Agent Orange [and] was soaked with it for 18 months. By the time he came back from Vietnam, [doctors] diagnosed him with cancer.
He believed whole-heartedly that I was the only one who was keeping him alive. It was a very heavy responsibility. I devoted my life to taking care of him. I was up 24/7 -- I don’t think I slept more than an hour a night without some problem.
By the time he died [six years ago], there was nothing left in his body that was working. He said, “This isn’t living. I’m ready to go. But what are you going to do? How will you manage?”
I told him I’ll be fine. It gave him peace and that was the end of that. It took some getting used to when you’re with someone for half a lifetime. I was mentally exhausted, physically destroyed and I had to heal.
But after a year, I decided it’s now or never: Everything that I wanted to do, [I’m] going to do it now before I get any older or before anything else happens. That’s when I started making things happening as a freethinking adult, not [as] Mrs. Someone.
When I was 61, one of the village residents wrote a very interesting article about riding in our town’s ambulance to observe what they do. I had no idea that this was available. My neighbor works for the fire department; I went with [him] when he was on duty and within minutes we had an ambulance call.
It was quite an intense call -- a life or death situation. All I could do was comfort the person but it was so rewarding and fulfilling. I wanted to do more and more. [I was put] in the next class to get an emergency technician license. It was a long course but I passed it, and once I got my license I could do hands-on patient care. It became the love affair of the century. I branched out into riding on the fire calls and the more I was exposed to the emergency side of medicine, I kept thinking, why didn’t I do this when I was 20?
I was appointed to the fire department, and after a year I told my chief I wanted to be a firefighter. He’s half my age; he probably thought I was nuts.
I showed up for training, looked around the room and there were around a dozen or so guys who were 18 - 21 years old. They looked at me, and they said, “Are you one of the instructors?” I said, “No, I’m one of your fellow students!” There was a stunned silence and this sort of hostile feeling came into the room. There was no respect for someone who loved the profession or had life experience or who was older or a woman. I was there and it didn’t sit well.
The things they taught us were very technical. There was a lot of studying, a lot of physical workouts (I gained 10 lbs. of muscle just to wear up to 60 lbs. of equipment). The instructors expected me to drop out in a week -- there was no encouragement from anyone. The guys didn’t even talk to me until almost the end of the course.
One or two of my female friends thought it was pretty good and were mildly supportive. A few of my family members said, “Why don’t you grow up and act your age? What are you doing this for?” I didn’t have a great deal of support. But I wanted it so damn bad! I wasn’t going to give up no matter what. This was one and only chance to reach for a dream and actually get it.
I totally ignored the fact that I was little, female, older. I was a firefighter-in-training. It was the hardest physical anything I have ever had to do, and that includes professional ballet. I was studying for hours every single night because the written test were just as tough as the physical tests.
Whatever they needed us to do, I made sure I was the first to volunteer, the first to try something. I never climbed ladders, other than a stepladder in my own home! But I was the first one up that two-story roof ladder!
I passed all the written tests with very good grades. At the end of the course, we had a very intensive practical exam, putting out real fires in a “burn building.” Then we had an extremely difficult written exam, which has 100 scary questions; you need to get 70 to pass. I thought there was no way in heck I could’ve passed this, so I asked a very kind-hearted instructor when I could make it up.
He looked at me and said, “I know you and I’m sure you passed. We’ll go over it together. You read me your answer and I’ll tell you if it’s right or wrong.”
I didn’t keep track but after awhile he said, “Do you realize you’re up to number 87 and you only need 70 to pass?”
I collapsed in a heap at his feet. I was crying! I thought, “Oh no, I shouldn’t be doing this because it isn’t professional” but It was better than my wedding day! It was the happiest day of my life.
After instructors gave me some words of encouragement, they playfully shoved me out of the room, symbolically shoving me into my future career. It was a 50-mile drive home. I remember laughing and shrieking and singing all the way home. I bought a big armload of flowers because that’s what my husband would’ve done. I got some champagne and stayed up all night calling and emailing friends and family. I was 66 years old when I received my firefighter certification, which supposedly made me the oldest person, or at least oldest female ever, to achieve the certification in the state, and possibly in all of New England.
Why in heaven’s name was this my calling? Something so nearly impossibly difficult, that there were young men who couldn’t do this? I’ll never know. I know I’m not going to be able to do this forever, and that breaks my heart. I worry a little when I get too old -- will I still have the courage and determination to move forward? [But] I did get my dream and to this day I still don’t believe it.