In a job that conjures images of burly macho men, A. Danelle England-Dansicker has had to prove that she can swap fire stories with the best of them.
"My grandfather and uncle used to sit around and talk about all the different fires they fought over the years," said the first female battalion chief in Baltimore County Fire Department history.
"I used to wonder how they could remember all those stories, but now I find myself doing the same thing they used to do. I've got my own stories and memories to tell."
The 38-year-old veteran was the county's first female firefighter, and her promotion today makes her the ranking woman firefighter in the Baltimore area.
"It's still a male-dominated field," Chief England-Dansicker said. "But I would really like to encourage girls and women out there that this is a career possibility for us. Women can become firefighters and maybe even fire chiefs."
Fire officials said new, lighter equipment, an increased emphasis on physical fitness and technological advancements are creating more opportunities for women.
Of 1,004 county firefighters and medics, 98 are women. Two of those women are captains.
In a memo about her promotion, officials described Chief England-Dansicker as a person who "works hard and is a pleasure to work with . . . She can comfortably show sincerity and a warm compassion for others and has a settling influence on the shift."
In praising the efforts of his medic team in 1980, Capt. Norris G. Stratmeyer wrote that Chief England-Dansicker "does her job the same as any man."
Born and raised in Pikesville, Chief England-Dansicker didn't set out to be a firefighter.
Studying elementary education at Towson State University, she had every intention of becoming a special education teacher.
Strong firefighting bonds
But there were strong bonds between her family and the Fire Department.
Her grandfather was a captain, her great-uncle was a lieutenant and her mother was a volunteer on the department's coffee wagon.
"If my mother hadn't grown up in the time that she did, she probably would have been a firefighter too," said Chief England-Dansicker, who lives in Reisterstown with her husband, Samuel Dansicker, an auto parts dealer, and their two daughters.
"My mother realized she could never be a firefighter when she was 10 years old. I never had to deal with that so I decided that I really liked the idea of being a firefighter and went for it."
Volunteered as teen
As a volunteer for Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company at 19, she had to overcome one major obstacle at the start.
The company's membership requirements referred to "any male within a five-mile radius." The rules had to be rewritten to allow her into the unit, she said.
Cranking her voice into a whine, she mimicked the people who questioned her choice: "Why do you want to do that?"
"I told them to ask the same question to my grandfather, my uncle and my brother," she said. "We chose it because we love our jobs. I really had to prove to people that I was genuinely interested in firefighting as a career. Once people understood that, they were very supportive."
Her determination paid off in 1984 when she was promoted to lieutenant, and five years later when she made captain.
"I did feel that I needed to prove myself more than others as a firefighter when I first started because I was a woman," Chief England-Dansicker said. "If a woman makes a mistake, there are so few of us that people will notice more. I worked really hard at not making any mistakes.
"But now, I realize that we're only human and that we all make mistakes," she added. "I'm comfortable now with the fact that people know me, know that I was a good firefighter and know what I am capable of doing. People know that I got here on my merits."
Chief England-Dansicker joins a small club. Outside the Baltimore area, Prince George's County has a woman deputy chief, two women in battalion chief positions and two women who are bureau chiefs (the equivalent of a captain).
Before that, Montgomery County had the state's only female deputy chief. She recently became fire chief in Prince William County, Va.
Lt. Denise S. Fox, an emergency medical services officer, is one of the two ranking women in the Montgomery County Fire Department.
"I know that it takes a lot of hard work to get there," said Lieutenant Fox, whose husband is a sergeant there. "I know I worked so doggone hard to get where I am now. It is definitely encouraging to see other women move up in this career."
Spends time in schools
Besides serving as a mentor to other women and men in the Baltimore County department, Chief England-Dansicker promotes firefighting as a women's career at high schools and colleges, groups for displaced homemakers and career programs.
She recalled one address to her daughter's preschool class. "It wasn't a big deal to them that I was a woman firefighter. It was nice. They were not as surprised to see a woman firefighter as they were years ago when I started in the department."
Is she setting her sights on becoming the county's first female fire chief someday? That's a possibility, she said.
"But for now, I just want to concentrate on being a good battalion chief," she said, smiling as an emergency call came in.
Then she drove off in her new Burgundy Ford Explorer -- the one with BATTALION CHIEF emblazoned on the side.