The Fire She Fights

Photo Sarah Whiting

Twenty years into my career as a Minneapolis firefighter, I realized I had been silent for too long. I had accepted life at the fire station where I shared bathrooms and bedrooms with men, strangers who claimed to be brothers. I had successfully commanded the fire scene, yet was told by my male chief, “You did it all wrong.”

It was confusing. I knew I did good work, but after years of being treated inferior to my male counterparts, my self-doubt grew. I realized it wasn’t just me — the other women were also marginalized. I decided women firefighters deserve to be seen as we are. So I wrote a book.

Interviewing other female firefighters made me realize we are an extraordinary group with amazing stories and similar feelings. Rather than write a memoir, I wrote a novel to offer readers a connection with fictional characters inspired by actual events.

The book’s four characters represent the different personalities and attributes of the women who shared their stories with me. The following excerpt is from the perspective of Ruby, a rookie who is beginning to realize that standing by her values is more important than fitting in.

The excerpt that follows is an adaptation from “The Fire She Fights,” by Tracy Moore, published by Wise Ink Creative Publishing, October 2021

Ruby woke to fluorescent lights flashing. “Engine 7 to a jumper on the Hennepin Bridge. Respond to the lower lock and dam.”

The whitecaps of the Mississippi crested and surrendered and crested again. John announced Engine 7’s arrival at the lower lock and dam, and while the rig was still rolling, Hector jumped off. The brakes hissed. Ruby’s tension eased.

Hector clicked open the life-jacket compartment. He handed one vest to John, one to Tyler, and dropped the third on the ground. Ruby fastened her spanner belt around her waist and lifted the vest from the pavement. She slipped her arms through, clipped it in front, and tamed her windblown hair into a ponytail.

They headed for the boat launch; the mens’ jackets were left unclipped over their heavy turnout coats. All that distinguished them as individuals disappeared into the blur of orange vests.

Tyler and Ruby jumped from the dock onto the fire rescue boat. John’s radio crackled. “Caller reporting seeing the jumper in the water, ten feet from shore and floating toward the lock and dam.”

Tyler ducked into the cabin and started the engines. Hector released the tether rope from the cleat and jumped on board. Ruby tested the hinged platform on the bow, ensuring it could be lowered for the rescue. Tyler steered the boat over the waves, and John searched the surface through binoculars.

Hector pointed out over the water. “There’s our Einstein,” he said.

John tracked Hector’s arm to the object in the water. “It’s a log,” John shouted over the engine’s roar.

“He’s holding on to it. Don’t ask me why they jump to their death and then fight for their lives.”

John motioned to Tyler to steer toward the log. Ruby readied the rescue basket at the bow. John cupped his mouth and yelled to Tyler, “Approach him from the side. Careful not to run him over.”

Hector kneeled beside Ruby. Together they released the platform and lowered it into the water.

“Hold the basket steady, and I’ll pull him in,” Hector said, reaching over her and toward the victim.

“I’ll help pull him in,” she said.

Hector made a tsssst sound. “I got it, rookie. Just hold the basket steady.”

“He’s panicky,” John said. “Grab the back of his jacket.”

Hector reached out over the water from the edge of the platform. He grasped the jumper’s jacket and spun him around, pinning his back against the side of the platform. The jumper’s flailing arms reached for Hector.

“Relax!” Hector shouted. “I’m gonna pull you up.”

“I’m not crazy. Don’t let me sink,” the man pleaded.

Hector tightened his grasp. Ruby steadied the basket. Hector grunted and heaved the victim. The wind gusted, and the boat and basket bobbed in the river’s current. The victim’s head dipped under the waves, and when he emerged from the river his eyes bulged in terror. He seized Hector’s vest.

Ruby let go of the basket to free Hector from the panicked man’s grasp. She pried the jumper’s fingers from Hector’s vest, but he grabbed on again, clenching tighter.

“I can’t swim. Don’t let me fall under,” he begged.

Cold water splashed Hector’s face. “Son of a bitch.”

Hector’s shoulder sunk under the waves. Ruby grabbed his arm, struggling to keep him on the platform. The victim thrashed until he’d hooked Hector’s open vest in the crook of his arm, and then he climbed Hector’s body like a ladder out of the water. Pressing his drenched sneaker into the side of Hector’s head, he hopped safely on deck with Hector’s life vest dangling from his arm.

Hector splashed into the river.

Ruby threw the rescue rope out near the spot where Hector had submerged. The yellow tangle floated on the surface.

Unable to see Hector, Ruby threw her end of the rope to Tyler and jumped into the river. She dipped her face under the water. The reflective trim of his fire coat flashed in the sunbeams beneath the surface. She reached for him, but her life jacket prevented her from diving. Ruby unclicked her vest, grabbed the floating rope, laced it through her spanner belt, and dove.

Light shocked Ruby awake when she broke surface. She sucked in the sun- scorched air. Her eyes bulged, not in terror but with purpose. She reeled in the rope, pulling Hector from under the water and to the side of the boat. Tyler dragged him onto the platform and then extended a hand to Ruby. He threw a blanket around her before he returned to the cab, racing toward shore where two ambulances waited.

John kneeled next to Hector on deck and felt for a pulse. “Ruby, you good?” He lowered his ear close to Hector’s face. “No pulse, and he’s fucking not breathing.” John retrieved the defibrillator and med bag from where they rested next to the jumper, also huddled in a blanket. Ruby started compressions. She wasn’t good. Her arms ached, and she shivered under the blanket in her soaked clothes. But her adrenaline-fueled superpower of denying reality urged her on.

Hector woke, squinted at Tyler, and then stared at Ruby. He raised his hand to his chest and flinched in pain. Still, he made it to his feet, and the medic led him by the elbow to the side door of the ambulance.

Hector winced again. “My ribs.”

The medic said, “You’re gonna be sore for a while. She didn’t hold back on those compressions.”

He pulled his arm from the medic. “She? What?” He stormed toward Ruby, who was assuring a paramedic that she was okay. He tapped on her shoulder. She turned.

“Sorry,” Hector said. “I mean. Why?”

Ruby steeled her stare. “Why what?” She leaned close to him. Absent fear, Ruby felt superior. She whispered in his ear, “Why bother saving a fuck-up, you mean? Do you really think you being an asshole is going to change who I am?”