Tricia Rodriguez, Pasadena’s first female fire captain is proud to be the first, but she’s even prouder simply to be good.
BY: Cuyler Gibbons Photo by Paul Mowry
Unlike the law enforcement world where policewoman was added to the lexicon to reflect the gender diversity that police departments had begun to display, in the world of the fire house such diversity is reflected in the adoption of a single gender neutral noun for both sexes – firefighter. Whether or not this distinction reveals some important cultural difference between these two types of front-line, first responders, I suspect the gender-free terminology suits Tricia Rodriguez, Pasadena’s first female fire captain, just fine.
The significance of being “the first” is unavoidable, and Rodriguez is proud to be an example. But her journey was far more practical than radical, and what she’d most like to be known for is her competence. “ I don’t want to be (known for being) the first female captain. I just worked my way up. I wanted to earn the promotion just as a person, not specifically as a female,” she says.
Though rare for a woman, the path Rodriguez chose seemed to naturally flow from the contours of her life, resulting in a career and professional achievements that were simply the natural progression of her twinned abilities and interests. “I have a lot of family in law enforcement”, she says, so she understood service, but “didn’t want to go exactly that route.” She enjoyed physical activity—she was a high school athlete and still liked to work out, and importantly, she says, she “didn’t mind getting dirty.” But when I wonder if there might be a little more to it than that, she pauses before making it definitive, “I don’t like guns…but I can run into (burning) buildings!” says Rodriguez, summing up with a smile. With her personal conviction and those two important qualifications, she began taking fire science classes at PCC and she never looked back.
In the course of her fire science curriculum, Rodriguez began attending an “Explorer Program” at Station 33 on Lake Avenue every Saturday. This was the crucible that ground Rodriguez into a committed firefighter. “You showed up at the station and they gave a you a uniform,” she says.
“We were there from 8 to 12, and we learned the fire service. You threw ladders and you pulled hose and you did push-ups, and you learned how to take direction from somebody.” This was, as Rodriguez puts it “the opportunity to say ‘you know this isn’t quite what I thought it was gonna be.’” For Tricia Rodriguez however it was exactly what she hoped for, and she continued at it, until five years later when she was officially hired as a Pasadena fire fighter.
At the time (1994) there were only three women in the Pasadena fire department, and only about 4,000 in the entire nation. Rodriguez worked as a firefighter for seven years, then trained for and became a dual paramedic-firefighter. Six years ago, Rodriguez decided to take the captains test and, having successfully done so, became Pasadena’s first female fire captain. Last year Jodi Slicker became Pasadena’s second female captain, and while women’s representation continues to rise, females still represent less than 4 percent of all firefighters nationally.
Leadership comes down to some pretty simple principles for Rodriguez. It begins with being her true self. “I didn’t come in here feeling like I needed to change,” she says “You can be a supervisor without being a macho, tough, mean, abrasive person,” says Rodriguez smiling genuinely. But her gaze is steady and penetrating and there is a supple strength in the manner in which she holds herself as she leans against the bright red cab of the fire engine. It might be a kinder, gentler leadership she describes, but I don’t think you’d want to test her authority.
For now, Rodriguez feels likes she’s exactly where she should be and where she hopes to stay. She has no plans for becoming a chief with its myriad political demands and desk bound days, and hopes to go on being the best example of a quality firefighter she can be. Or, as she says, to “be a little kinder, say thank you more and treat people like you want to be treated.” Sounds a lot like basically being a good person. Which, for Rodriguez, is exactly what being a quality captain and firefighter is all about.