By Amy McElroy
In the wake of two local wildfires’ recent destruction—which together claimed 136,000 acres of land and nearly 70 homes—Santa Clara County’s battalion chief for support services a firefighting career. After 28 years on the job, Debbie Pardue Stocksick is the kind of role model that would inspire young women—or anyone—to follow in her footsteps.
Morgan Hill resident Stocksick, 52, has never been afraid of hard work. “My parents always said I could do whatever I wanted to.” While she was already collecting newspapers and cans door-to-door, she started her first housekeeping business at the age of 12, after someone asked if she cleaned houses. She continued her cleaning business until she enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and picked it up again after graduation.
Back in 1988, one of her housecleaning clients—a business manager for the Santa Clara County Central Protection District—left a fire department application on his kitchen counter for Stocksick with a note saying, “I know you could pass the physical. You should give this a try.” His confidence about her ability to pass the agility test stemmed from her other job as a fitness instructor; she began teaching aerobics in college while a cheerleader and a member of the dance team.
Her first thought upon seeing the note was, “Girls aren’t firefighters.” Despite that, she stopped at the Shannon Fire Station in Los Gatos on her way home, where she saw a volunteer female firefighter rolling hose in the back room. She talked to firefighter Daron Pisciotta, who is now her boss, about fire service and put in an application.
“My mom said, ‘That job is perfect for you because it’s all about helping people.’” Stocksick adds, “My dad asked, ‘Great. How much do you get paid?’ and ‘Do they have benefits?’” He took over her cleaning business, which he still operates today.
In one sense, she was naive about females facing any prejudice in the fire service. She doesn’t feel like she grew up with any prejudice because she felt empowered to pursue her dreams. “For me, I was just happy to be there. Like it was a great opportunity, glass-half-full kind of thing, and I didn’t realize you could fail out.”
Stocksick says most females did not pass the physical agility in those days—specifically the hose drag, which requires the person to pull so many feet in 8.3 seconds. Because females have less upper body strength, she says, it’s necessary for women to use “all legs.” After she beat 8.3 seconds, she passed the axe swing test, a ladder exercise, running a mile and a half in under 12 minutes, and more, to pass the physical requirements.
She left in the middle of her own dance recital to take the written test. After her interview, she received a job at the academy on Oct. 2, 1990—the fifth female hired by the department.
Another female who got hired with her had a firefighting background, but didn’t make it off probation. Because of that, the entire class was highly scrutinized. Stocksick says, “Two guys, one I went to high school with, would barely look at me or talk to me because they didn’t want to be associated with someone who wasn’t going to make it. Now we’re really close friends, and I tease him about it.”
Stocksick never wanted any special treatment as a female firefighter. “I always made the same the jokes as the guys, the same sexual innuendos, acted like one of the guys, and wanted to fit in.”
Right away, she knew she had found her calling. “I loved being a firefighter, loved helping people.” She began taking captain’s classes to learn more.
During that time, Stocksick purchased the local gym facility Fitness Connection, located behind the old Target shopping center on Jarvis Drive. While she says it was tough owning the gym and working full-time, she relied on all her amazing employees and instructors to make it possible. But when she sold the gym to have children in 1999, her marriage ended.
Stocksick, however, never gives up. She called a good friend she’d seen recently at a high school reunion and took him to dinner to ask if he’d be her sperm donor. After he said yes and she became pregnant, they started dating and later married.
During her pregnancy, Stocksick continued to prove her dedication as a firefighter, staying “online” through her sixth month. She says, “I remember I was five months pregnant, pulling ceilings in a burning building and the other guy with me had cancer. I said, ‘Look at us!’ I remember we were laughing.”
In spite of her doctor’s support, she encountered resistance from a number of other females on the job who didn’t agree with her decision to work through her pregnancy.
After the first six months online, she went to work in the office for the rest of her pregnancy. There, she helped with Emergency Medical Services programs by updating classes and proctoring CPR. Of course Stocksick—never one to sit still—-went into labor two weeks early after teaching a 5 a.m. yoga class.
After that first pregnancy, Stocksick passed the captain’s test and was waiting on the list for promotion when she got pregnant with her second child. This time, she stayed online five months and was promoted to captain after she returned to work in 2006.
She describes that first year as captain as the most difficult ever in her job. “When you are a captain, then it’s like people are looking to try to catch you making a mistake.” Stocksick had always been tough. Growing up with two brothers and her dad, she says, “When they were playing, and when I got hurt and started to cry, I’d turn around and they would all be gone. I learned early on guys don’t want to see a girl cry.” Stocksick’s promotion required her to develop a new level of toughness.
“I felt like I had no one,” she says. “For the first time I realized there were other females in the department, and I started talking to them. Before, I always wanted to talk to the guys. We had one woman always talking about what ‘we’ need: separate bathrooms, etc.”
She explains, “Of course, now that’s the way it is. But at that time, I didn’t want to hear about it because I wanted to succeed as a captain.” Back then, Stocksick was concerned about controversy between men and women in the firehouse.
Even though she often felt alone, she says, “My first very tour I worked with two other females—one firefighter and one paramedic. They said, ‘We have your back.’” She says that helped her make it through those rough times.
By working hard, she gained respect as a captain. Later on, she says, “I remember one guy saying, ‘If I have to work with a female, I want it to be [Stocksick].’”
Over the years, Stocksick entertains no illusions about what it means to be a female firefighter. “I look at our females and how hard they work and how hard we have to prove ourselves, and we can’t talk about it because no one wants to hear that, either.”
Three years ago, Stocksick decided she could make a bigger difference to all the fire departments working behind the scenes, so she sought a promotion as operations captain. Since then, she’s helped to establish the department as one of only a handful in the nation to reach accreditation. She implemented a new ringdown—or warning—system tied in with the dispatch center, which results in faster response times.
A year ago, Stocksick was promoted to staff battalion chief for support services for all the fleet—monitoring facilities and their upgrades and determining when fire engines and other vehicles need replacement. Stocksick’s department typically supports urban areas, though it also provides Cal Fire with wildland taskforces.
Of course, there are scary moments, such as the burnover that occurred during the recent Loma Fire.
“A burnover is when a fire is coming at you. You jump into the rig when the fire is coming right at you, and you think you’re going to die. You think, this is it.”
Fortunately, this time, everyone was safe. But Stocksick says, “We all stayed until we knew they had the resources they needed. We’re always willing to do anything to help Cal Fire.”
Despite the risks and the unknown, Stocksick says, “People in our department now love fighting wildland fire because we have learned so much.” But when staff gets low, “It’s hard on our department because we have to backfill with people who are off. It’s hardest on them and their families.” Adding personnel can be gone for 14 to 21 days at a time.
She’s taken action to remedy her biggest concern: the small number of applicants, particularly females, pursuing firefighting as a career. At her fire chief’s request, she organized a joint career day with the sheriff’s department. At the McCormack training center in Campbell, young women from age 14 to their mid-30s put on gear, climbed a ladder truck into a drill tower, extended hose gear into smoke, learned water nozzle patterns, saved a mannequin, laid a progressive hose, and operated the jaws of life. Stocksick also helped organize similar programs for four adult leadership academies for both men and women.
With the focus on tech in Silicon Valley, she worries no one thinks about a firefighting as a career. But with the high costs of college, Stocksick says one can go straight from high school to the academy, but an EMT credential is highly recommended. Starting salaries are in the six figures for most of the departments in Santa Clara County, and she adds, “You get great benefits, you get to help people, and people love you.”
Stocksick warns kids, “Don’t get any tattoos until you know what you want to do.” She says the fire department is particular about tattoos. “Don’t put anything on social media you couldn’t show your parents. Try to stay away from drugs, and never drink and drive. Once you drink and drive, you lose half or more of the options of what you want to do in life.”
She adds, “I wish you could tell all the little girls ‘You can be anything you want. Be a good person, and do all your push-ups and your pull-ups. Stay active and physically fit.’ I want these kids to have a chance to do whatever they want.”
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