Before retiring from the Chicago Fire Department last month, Battalion Chief Linda Parsons supervised four fire stations, including Engine Co. 13 at 259 N. Columbus Dr.
In the course of her 30-year career, she had entered blazing tenements, crawled through smoky rooms, and fought hundreds of fires. But the most frightening experience she can recall took place in the safe and flameless confines of Engine Co. 1 on 419 S. Wells St.
“One of the scariest days of my life was walking into the fire station for the first day of work,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘they are not gonna be happy to see me because I’m a woman.’ I was scared.”
She had a point. Although she had performed “very well” during the entrance exam a year earlier, she had heard nothing since then, except for the voice in her head that kept reminding her, “they’re never gonna call.”
Over the next three decades, Ms. Parsons would achieve the highest rank in the CFD’s Fire Suppression and Rescue Division. Besides the station on Columbus Dr., she also supervised the one that had scared her on her first day of the job.
“It ended up being a wonderful career for me,” she says.
She applied to the CFD in 1986, after a relative suggested that she take the Fire Department’s entrance exam. At the time, she was studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology and lifeguarding at 63rd St Beach. She figured it would be an interesting experience, but probably not much more.
“I was in college,” she remembers, “but I did not have a vision for myself.”
During the exam, they treated her no differently than any other applicant. “Like a ‘next-in-line,’” she says. Afterwards, she continued on with her life. “Something in my head said, ‘okay, that’s done.’”
But Linda Parsons never forgot the way that her relative had described a career with the fire department — “it’s a great job, if you’re interested.” She believed that the words were true because the one who had encouraged her was her aunt, Lauren Howard, the first female fire fighter ever hired by the city of Chicago.
When the department called and offered her the position a year later, she thought “Oh My God!” and said yes.
She dealt with the fear of her first day like a pro. “I pretended all is well and I reported for duty and I walked in and they were pretty darn decent to me,” she says. “Before long, I was one of the team.”
Although it turned out that her initial fears were genuine, they had nothing to do with her gender.
“Anybody who walks in, they’re skeptical of until you prove that you’re not lazy and you’re ready to do whatever is called upon you to do.” she says. “If you show up and work hard and you do your job and you’re friendly, it’s gonna go fine.”
She also learned that she was a good fit for the job. “I had been a lifeguard for five summers and I was always involved in sports, so it came naturally to be a fire fighter,” she explains. “Five of us get on the engine or the truck and we work together and it’s physically demanding.”
She went out on a lot of alarms at Engine Co. 1, which mostly serves downtown Chicago, but she saw very few fires. That changed when she moved to a different station further south. “I got a pretty darn good amount of fire experience,” she says.
Over the next several years, Ms. Parsons was promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain of a station on the north side. Along the way, she made one of the most important discoveries of her career: she really enjoys fighting fires.
“It’s exciting to crawl through a completely smoky house with your air tank on and find the fire,” she says. “You just follow the heat. You feel the heat, yeah, and go further, closer, to where you sense the heat. There’s a glow and you’re like ‘it’s over here!’”
As Battalion Chief, a rank she attained about four years ago, she missed the hands-on excitement of fire fighting, but still considered herself part of the team.
“Although I am in charge, I have always had respect for other opinions on things,” she explains. “They’ll be investigating inside and relay information to me.”
Chief Parsons lives on the north side of Chicago with her husband, Dave, and her eleven year-old daughter, Lillian. Besides spending more time with them, she plans to volunteer at Animal Care & Control, an animal shelter on Western Ave.
She remains a big proponent of women in the fire department, especially those who are willing to “work hard, to sweat, and, you know, get dirty.” But she is also quick to point out that the world has changed since she joined the department.
“There’s a more modern mindset where this younger generation is used to women in non-traditional jobs,” she says.
“Younger generation,” she repeats. “It’s weird for me to say that, weird for me just to think all of a sudden my whole career is winding down. But I don’t feel that old.”
Daniel Patton | Staff Writer