116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Female firefighters
Davenport and Iowa City hired first women in Iowa in 1977, with Cedar Rapids following in 1986
The first career female firefighter in the U.S. was Sandra Forcier, who was hired as a police officer/firefighter in Winston-Salem, N.C., in July 1973.
The following year, Judith Livers became the first to serve strictly as a firefighter for the Arlington, Va., Fire Department. Both retired from their careers as battalion chiefs.
Sharon Iossi, a physical education teacher, became Eastern Iowa’s first female firefighter when she was hired by the Davenport Fire Department in March 1977.
A few months later, in June 1977, Gazette reporter Ann Schrader joined Cedar Rapids Fire Department rookies training at a controlled burn of a house.
“If I chose to accept the mission, I’d go through the whole shootin’ match of donning a helmet, boots, breathing apparatus and mask to trudge into the burning house with the rookies,” Schrader wrote for The Gazette. “Maybe I have a death wish, but I decided to give it a try.”
After enduring the intense heat and smoke, the weight of the firefighting gear and the toll on her body, Schrader reported she was exhausted. A few veteran firefighters asked if she wanted to be a firefighter.
“It was interesting,” she answered, “but being a reporter is easier, most of the time.”
Iowa City’s first female firefighter — Linda Eaton — became national news after her hiring in August 1977.
After two years with the department, Eaton, a West Liberty native, became pregnant and was transferred to a non-hazardous city job, causing a vacancy that was a hardship on other firefighters, the city said.
After having her baby, Eaton decided to breastfeed her son while she was on duty at the fire station. Her bosses didn’t think that was a good idea, and she was suspended twice and threatened with dismissal.
District Judge Ansel Chapman issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the city from firing Eaton and allowing her to nurse her son twice a day, pending an investigation by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, The Gazette reported.
Though she’d won that battle, Eaton claimed she then was subjected to harassment by other firefighters. She resigned in May 1980 and filed a sex discrimination and harassment lawsuit against Iowa City and three officials in 1984. She lost the lawsuit.
Clinton firefighter Karen McQuiston in 2015 filed discrimination charges against the department when she became pregnant. She lost the case in district court but the Iowa Supreme Court reversed that ruling.
C.R. hires 2 women
Cedar Rapids hired its first two women firefighters, Natalie Kleis and Tonya Ross, in March 1986. The department had been male-only for 92 years.
Kleis and Ross began working at the new Central Fire Station, completed in December 1985, at B Avenue and Third Street NW. The station was designed with a separate sleeping area and locker room for women.
Kleis became the fire department’s first full-time safety education officer in 1990. She left the department in 1997 after clashing with Brud Gorman, who became fire chief in 1991.
Ross left the department in 2003 after 17 years, moving to the Pacific Northwest, where she had spent her childhood.
Cedar Rapids hired Emma Pulver as a firefighter in 1988. Pulver rose to the rank of captain of a crew that included six female firefighters.
Marion hired its first female firefighter in 1990. Maureen Brown, 40, had been a paramedic with the Area Ambulance Service when she was hired.
Brown recruited Debra Krebill to join her as a Marion firefighter. Krebill worked for the department for 23 years before being named the department’s chief in July 2014, the second woman to become a career fire chief in the state. She retired in April 2022.
Lynn Washburn-Livingston became fire chief in Davenport in October 2011 after serving 30 years with the Rockford, Ill., Fire Department.
After working as an Iowa City firefighter for about eight years, Tina McDermott became the department’s first female lieutenant in March 2009. At the time, Iowa City had one other woman in the department and Cedar Rapids had five.
Sadie McDowell became Iowa City’s fourth female firefighter in June 2011. She filed a lawsuit, alleging gender and sexual orientation discrimination, harassment and retaliation in August 2022.
Ottumwa hired its first female firefighter in May 2022.
As of 2020, women made up 9 percent of the more than 1 million firefighters in the United States, according to a National Fire Protection Association estimate. The Cedar Rapids Fire Department now has eight female firefighters.