Woman firefighter lighting the way

Notable female volunteer, leader of associations honored by governor

April 30, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Jackie Olson likes a dare.

Told that, because she's a woman, she'd never pass the exam to become a firefighter, she promptly signed up for the training and passed. Knowing that no female had served as president of the Ferndale Volunteer Fire Company, she ran for the post and won - and later was elected to lead the umbrella organization for volunteer fire stations in Anne Arundel County.

Warned that chemotherapy would disrupt her life, Olson barely slowed down.

In the ranks of volunteer firefighters, it is rare to see a woman at the helm, much less one who is fighting breast cancer. But Olson, who was honored last week by the Governor's Commission on Service and Volunteerism, is doing exactly that.

"I don't like to be told that things can't be done," says Olson, 39.

Olson was 25 when her interest in firefighting was sparked. A fire that broke out at her mother's house was extinguished by Ferndale volunteer firefighters, among them Jay Olson, chief of the station and her future husband.

The day after the fire, she stopped by the Ferndale station, planning only to drop off a donation. She ended up talking to Olson for hours.

They'd been dating for a few months when she came upon the scene of a motorcycle accident on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and was upset that she couldn't do more to help the victims. That's when she asked her future husband whether she should take first-aid training.

Soon she was certified as an emergency medical technician and began running ambulance calls. She joined the Ferndale company in 1988 and not long thereafter her husband's friends teased her about becoming a firefighter.

"They said a woman couldn't make it through the training," she recalls. "Basically that's why I did it, because they dared me. I had to prove them wrong."

Olson finished firefighter training in 1991 and became one of the few women in the county fighting fires.

"The first few calls I went on, I only got to hook up the hydrant and then do the cleanup," she says. "Being a woman in the field, you get a lot of, `Oh my god, I have to go in there with her?'" She eventually earned the trust of her peers.

In 1992, she and Jay Olson, who have been married for 13 years, had their son, Tyler, now 9.

"He knows if it's not Mommy running out the door to the station, it's Daddy," says Olson.

Last year, she was elected president of the Ferndale company, responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the station, which is staffed by paid and volunteer firefighters and paramedics. The same year, she became the third woman to serve as president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association in the 72-year history of the group. In her post, which has been likened to the county police chief's, Olson is responsible for everything from the budget to ensuring that volunteers keep up with training.

She often holds association meetings at her home in Pasadena. The meetings are always well attended - in part, she says, because she feeds everyone.

Olson, who is assistant director of the Anne Arundel County Food Bank, also volunteers as a CPR instructor at several assisted-living homes and serves as assistant secretary for the Maryland State Firemen's Association. Somehow, she finds time to watch her son's ball games.

When screenings showed another cancerous lump in her breast last year - the disease was first diagnosed in December 2000 - she joked with her doctor, "I'm not sure I can fit that into my schedule."

"To do all she does and still deal with her own health problems is remarkable," said Charles "Jenks" Mattingly III, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association.

The evening of her initial diagnosis, she went to a volunteer firefighters meeting. "I couldn't let it get me down," she says. "I couldn't lay on the couch."

After the first diagnosis, Olson underwent a lumpectomy and chemotherapy. Last month, she had the spot that was discovered last year removed. She is eager for her blood count to return to normal so she can again respond to fires, one of the few things doctors won't let her do during treatment.

"I want to get back out on the calls," Olson says. "That's what I'm really looking forward to. That's why I do all this."

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