Among the eight recruits to join the Danville Fire Department, Hillary Alderson endured a physically challenging 17-week training course to become the fourth female in department’s history.
With Alderson joining the ranks, there are only two women serving in the department currently.
COVID-19 brought an unexpected opportunity for Alderson, a Ringgold native who was working in human relations when the pandemic went into full swing. After losing her job and spending time as a stay-at-home mom to her children, Alderson saw an opening with the fire department and jumped at the chance to serve.
“I’ve always liked being part of a team and helping people,” she said. “I think this was God’s way of pushing me towards helping the community.”
For 17 weeks, the days for Alderson and her fellow recruits started at 6:30 a.m and ended at 7:30 p.m. The recruits were certified as emergency medical technicians and learned the ins and outs of being a firefighter through a combination of classroom and field exercises. Despite the intensity, Alderson couldn’t recall a day where she didn’t want to come in and cited her fellow recruits as “a great bunch of humorous guys.”
The training process included an 11-part agility test that pitted recruits against the clock and their own bodies. One such exercise required Alderson to lift a smoke ejector — a 50 pound electric fan used to ventilate a building — from a high shelf. While carrying the fan, she had to navigate a small obstacle course before returning it back to a place on the shelf.
If the fan hit the floor during an attempt, the recruit was disqualified.
Alderson conducted practice runs before the test and completed it with ease, but leading up to the test, her nerves got the best of her.
She had no trouble lifting the smoke ejector or navigating the course, but when she climbed up the step-ladder to put the ejector on the shelf, her knees buckled. Alderson and the ejector tumbled to the floor. Just when she thought her day was done, Alderson came to a realization.
“The ejector landed on top of me and didn’t hit the floor,” she said. “So I got up, kept going, and put it back on the shelf.”
Danville Fire Chief Dave Coffey was in attendance for the test and knew Alderson was the perfect fit for department. After the agility test, Alderson gave a “stellar” interview with Coffey and was awarded the firefighter rank on March 22.
In addition to diversity, Alderson provides an additional female perspective alongside Danville Fire Marshal Shelby Irving, who’s been with the DFD for 32 years. Coffey is hoping more females join the department.
“The firehouse demographic should mirror the community demographic,” he said. “I wish we could figure out a way to increase the number of female firefighters.”
Alderson isn’t fazed by her gender counterparts in the department and compared the department to “one big family.” She’s also aware of the implications her hiring has for other females and how it could serve as inspiration to some.