The Inner and Outer Life of a Firefighter: The Story of Carla McClellan

Back in 1994, I decided to try out for the fire department along with a woman I trained with at the gym. She was applying in Saint Paul; I wanted to apply in Minneapolis.

Her test came up first. This really strong woman broke her leg during the test. I thought to myself, “I’m not going to try for a job where you break your leg taking a test.”

It took me a few years to recover from that. In 1999, I was working in Richfield as a dispatcher. Every time the firefighters would come back from calls, I would be full of questions about what they did on the job. Some of them encouraged me to try out. I didn’t tell my dad, who was a firefighter in the Air Force, because he wouldn’t want that life for me. But I went through the testing process in Minneapolis with thousands of people (unlike now, when the numbers have dwindled).

I didn’t think I stood a chance, competing against more than a thousand (mostly) men in that room. The Women’s Firefighters Association did prep work with me on the side; partly to make sure I could pass the physical test. Back then, you had to pull up a ladder, pull a hose up two flights of stairs, chop as many times and as hard as you could, and start a raggedy old pull saw.

You had to drag a dummy with gear, which was about 180 pounds, through a maze to simulate taking him out of the building. You had to throw a fan, which was about 50 pounds, up to the window and hang it.

As I recall, if you did the physical test in under four minutes, you got 100 percent. I did it in about 3:40, so I passed the physical part. Then I had to pass a psychological exam, a drug test, and an interview with a panel of eight people.

I got the big letter that said I passed. Then I had to tell my dad. He was very concerned. His history of the fire department included unexplained incidents where Black firefighters died or were severely injured. He told me point blank, “Those guys will throw you down the fire pole.”

The pay as a cadet is minuscule. You have to spend five days a week, eight hours a day, going through mandatory training in the classroom. They have you squeeze through tunnels, to make sure you’re not afraid of that experience. They test you on ladders and heights.

After that, I went through Minneapolis training to learn rules. Back then, there was a 40-foot ladder you would raise straight up into the air, fully extended skyward. Candidates held ropes from four corners of the elevated ladder as a firefighter — being tested for comfort with heights — had to climb up, go over the top, then climb down the other side. A few people got stuck at the top and had to quit.

You had to learn hazmat training, how to use a self- contained breathing apparatus — then they sent you out to learn the truck.

I invited my dad to graduation. He was super worried, because during his time in the 1950s and 1960s, the fire department was mostly white males. It still was when I joined, but I would do the best job I could and stay in good shape to work as hard as everyone else out there.

Running Into Danger

photo by Sarah Whiting

Growing up with my sister, there were things that scared her that I was not afraid of. My sister says I’ve always been this way. Our school bus crashed into a car once. I asked the driver to let me out. I ran over to the car and checked on the lady the bus had run into. My sister says I moved so fast; I didn’t even hesitate.

Another time, when I was about 13 years old, she was cooking hamburgers while I was in the other room. I heard her scream and saw flames reflected off the wall in the kitchen. She had started a grease fire. She was pouring water on it; I threw a lid and some flour on it. The only fear I had was wondering if my sister was okay, and how much trouble we would be in when our parents got home. I guess I’ve always thought about safety, and helping people — I’m just wired that way.

If you think about things too much, yes, it’s scary. But I could train and focus. I even learned meditation to get my brain wired right about going into difficult environments.

Staying Fit

To stay in shape on the job, many of the guys would run. For me it was lifting. I always wanted to put more than 45-pound plates on the leg press.

But you do have to honor your body. I ruptured my Achilles on a call when I was running up stairs, requiring multiple surgeries. There were hernias. Back injuries. I spent a lot of time at the hospital thinking I would not be able to go back to work.

I thought about how many times athletes have to come back from injuries. They have to train again and again. I realized I just had to have that mentality too. It’s a beautiful thing. You just strengthen and keep going.

My colleagues were always testing me, so I had to be mentally tough as well. I was sent to one of the roughest firehouses in the city, where the Vietnam vets worked. I walked into the station like Miss Sunshine and simply asked what they wanted me to do. That might have helped me gain respect.

I knew I might be mentally stronger than some, and physically stronger than others, so I simply made myself part of the team. Some of them were waiting for an opportunity to make me quit.

One of the Vietnam vets scared everyone; people said he was the meanest guy they knew. He took me aside one day and showed me hose-handling techniques. A fire hose can have 150 pounds of pressure behind it. He said, “You’re not that big, and it’s a challenge for me, so I’m going to show you what I do, to keep it from flying out of your hands and knocking you over.”

That was beautiful. Later I was able to show younger kids the same techniques.

In Retirement

My oldest nephew has cerebral palsy and needs full care. I am newly retired, and I intend to help my family out. My father recently got on dialysis, so three times a week I take him to appointments. I help out my in- laws. There is just so much to do. I get up at 6am to work out. When I was working, 24- hour shifts ate up a big chunk of time.

No matter which station I was at, I met the neighbors. I loved sharing the energy of the fire department with the people, because we’re planted in the middle of their neighborhood.

I took peer classes, and touched base with all the police officers and other firefighters to see how they were doing, because we’re all part of this whole big system that runs the City of Minneapolis. I felt hugely honored to be a part of that system that protects our neighbors.

Even though I busted my butt every day, I think about all the connections and all the wonderful things that have happened around that job. There are so many kids who remember me who I don’t even remember.

I always have Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in my head — how many people have sacrificed so many things before me. I’m driven by something bigger, trying to be the light for other people who are having a dark day. That is what it comes down to.