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First two women join the full-time firefighting force at the Notre Dame fire department

| Monday, October 7, 2019

After the Main Building caught fire 140 years ago, Fr. Edward Sorin started what evolved into the University fire department. This past summer, the University hired the two first full-time woman firefighters — Christi Shibata and Michelle Woolverton.

Women have served in other capacities at the department, on-call and part-time, but never full time. In addition to administrators, staff and technicians, currently 12 personnel serve on the 24-hour shift rotation in teams of four. There are also 40 on-call personnel. 

Shibata started as an on-call firefighter at Notre Dame last year, as she was training at the Clay Fire Academy in South Bend. Woolverton said she started as an on-call EMT in 2010, while going through the paramedic program at Ivy Tech. She also graduated from the fire academy before getting a full time position at Notre Dame with building services. She served as an on-call firefighter for eight months to a year before being hired on as a full-time firefighter at the University. 

“It’s just been an amazing experience,” Woolverton said. “Everyone here has been so welcoming and so supportive … I mean, it starts from the top and goes all the way down. The guys here, we make a great team.”

Chief Bruce Harrison said he was impressed with both Shibata and Woolverton, who he saw as a good fit for the University’s identity and values. 

There’s no doubt I celebrate the diversity, and the culture that Notre Dame [would want] the fire department to reflect that. It’s an important piece of the University’s identity, but in this particular case, what I really feel is that we we look for qualified candidates,” Harrison said. “We didn’t give Michelle and Christie an opportunity. They earned the opportunity to do the job.”

Shibata’s and Woolverston’s transition to the team, along with two other individuals hired during the same period, was “seamless,” Harrison said.

Shibata said the other firefighters on the force don’t treat her differently because of her gender. 

“They treat us as rookies, or new to the fire service of course because we do have a lot to learn still, but they have accepted us in, as they expect us to do the same job as any other one coming in,” Shibata said. 

The team shows each other respect, Shibata said.

“They respect us and show us the respect that we deserve, knowing that we earned the position,” Shibata said. 

Woolverton said she thinks their addition to the force challenges the team to think differently, to understand how they think. 

“I think we all make really good teams,” Woolverton said. “We all have strengths that we, I think, we pull out of each other.”

Harrison said he hopes the addition of Shibata and Woolverton is inspiring to others. 

“If this even serves as an opportunity to let any child feel like they could join a fire department when they grow up, it’s all worth it,” he said.

Harrison said the University fire department serves the whole tri-campus area.

“Our job is to serve our community needs and do that to the best of our ability,” Harrison said. “The employees here have a very, very large dedication to the mission here at Notre Dame and serving their community’s needs to the best of their ability.”

He said all firefighters must demonstrate strong work ethic but also heart, as the job often requires working with people who have suffered great losses.

“I look at [the job] as a privilege and an honor, and you’re looking for people that reflect that kind of mentality,” Harrison said. 

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