News, Police/Fire

Peabody fire captain blazes a trail

Captain Tracy Collins has been with the Peabody Fire Department for more than 20 years. (Spenser R. Hasak)

PEABODY — Tracy Collins doesn’t think she’s someone special.

But the 48-year-old mother of two is the only female firefighter in the 100-person Peabody Fire Department. She’s risen through the ranks. Last year, she was promoted from lieutenant to captain.

“I don’t understand why there aren’t more women in the fire service,” Collins said.  “If I can do it, anyone can.”

Really?  

The firefighter Physical Ability Test (PAT) is not for the weak or out of shape. It’s a set of timed, endurance tests that must be passed before being hired by any fire department.

For Collins, it was no problem. She passed the PAT along with 11 other male recruits and became a full-time firefighter in 1999. 

“I’m a lot stronger than I look,” she said. “I don’t want to say I’m an overachiever, but if I set my mind to something I will do it.” 

Still, Collins knew her gender would be an issue in a male-dominated fire house.

“The guys I got on with were fine and told the others I did everything they did,” she said. “The old school guys, who’ve been around for a long time were fine too, and so were the guys who were about to retire. It was the middle-aged guys who had been on the force for a while who didn’t think women belonged.”

A few firefighters told colleagues they would not work with her, she said. But one soon changed his mind after a forest fire they battled together.

“I spent two days in the woods with him, dragging around thousands of feet of forestry hose,” she recalled. “He later told the firefighters I was all right.”

A now-retired captain tortured her, Collins said. He would dole out chores and give the guys one thing to do and her five, she said.

“At fires, he would find me and make me do stupid things, like take 300 feet of charged hose and move it 10 inches to the left for no reason at all,” he said. “At one fire, he wanted me to move lawn furniture and my lieutenant said: ‘She’s with me captain, find someone else.'”

Collins tolerated that kind of behavior for a decade, she said.

“I would complain to the union and they agreed he was being a jerk, but I didn’t push it,” she said. “I didn’t get this job to sue the city, make money and leave. I just wanted to do the job.”

Chief Joseph Daley said Collins is driven.

“She’s a very proud firefighter,” he said. “She not only puts her work in at the station, but she excels at academy classes.” 

One of her earliest memories is fighting a fire on Cleveland Road in West Peabody in 1999 with Daley, who was then a lieutenant. A gas grill was left on a back deck and the fire raced up the side of the house into the attic.

“Joe went up to the attic first … the other firefighter asked if I wanted to go up and I said ‘Yes,’ so he gave me the hose line and I went up,” she said. “Joe and I were on the attic floor when he moved a trunk and the fire came up from underneath it. As I watched the fire roll over my head in awe, Joe said: ‘Now might be a good time to hit that (with water).” 

Of the 12,804 professional firefighters in Massachusetts, just 623, or less than 5 percent, are female, according to the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts.

Richard MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said it’s unclear why more women don’t join the fire service.  

“In today’s world, the opportunities are out there regardless of gender,” he said.  “For some reason, the number of women who become EMTs is much higher than those who choose firefighting.”

Collins said she has no desire to be a deputy fire chief or chief.

“Reaching captain was my ambition and I’ve done it,” she said. “I am responsible for two or three guys, but chiefs are responsible for everyone. I’m content where I am.” 

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