Women’s Equality Day panelists share experiences as police officers, firefighters

By Dianne Ryder DLA Public Affairs

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Four public service officials described the challenges they’ve faced as leaders in law enforcement and firefighting fields during a Women’s Equality Day observance at the McNamara Headquarters Complex Aug. 21.

Speaking on this year’s theme, Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence, were Capt. Jacquelyn Marshall and Sgt. Diborah Scarpine, both part of the Defense Logistics Agency police force; Fire Chief Trisha Wolford from Anne Arundel County, Maryland; and Battalion Fire Chief Tiffanye Wesley from Arlington County, Virginia.

Wolford, whose background is in law enforcement, paramedics and firefighting, said she knew she wanted to be a firefighter but felt her career field chose her.

“There are some things that you just can’t deny; there’s a passion for people and the excitement and adrenaline that goes with the job,” she said.

Wesley said she was studying to be a chef when she heeded the call to public service that eventually led to her appointment as the first African-American woman promoted to battalion chief in Arlington County Fire Department history.

“I had never even spoken to a firefighter before I applied,” she said, adding that naysayers told her she couldn’t do the job due to her small size. “Everything I did was because they said I couldn’t.”

Scarpine said the small percentage women in the police force was an obstacle when she first joined it in 1979.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “You go through the same training [the men] go through, but you’re not as accepted.”

Misperceptions remain regarding women’s ability to protect rather than be protected, she added. “[But] we’ve proven over the years that we can do the job and we’re here to stay.”

Wolford agreed that biases still exist, adding that when she is accompanied by male subordinates and someone introduces “Chief Wolford,” strangers are inclined to shake her male deputy’s hand. 

“The looks on their faces when they figure out they’ve gone to the wrong person is the most rewarding experience,” she quipped.

Wesley said empathy and willingness to change have improved problems like inaccessible equipment and ill-fitting uniforms for women.

“It helps when there are other females in the room that you serve [with and] they say, ‘I couldn’t do that exercise,’ or ‘I failed because my gloves are too big,’” she said.

Marshall recounting a time when she was able to obtain information from a suspect that her male counterparts couldn’t. She credits her approach, which was conversational rather than confrontational.

When asked how they champion peace and nonviolence, Marshall and Scarpine said they see their primary role as advocates.

“It’s something in you, constantly wanting to help people,” Scarpine said. “You step into their shoes to protect and help them so they won’t become victims. Basically, that’s your job.”

Although the job can be thankless, Scarpine said, the rewards lie in affirmation from those she helps.

“You really don’t think of it as being a hero or a champion, it’s more guiding and teaching,” she added.

Marshall, who mentors troubled and delinquent teenagers in her spare time, said young people going through an emotional time often just want someone to listen.

“If you take that time to actively listen, pay attention to what they’re saying and show compassion, it makes a difference in that person’s life,” she said.

Promoting peace and nonviolence “comes with the territory” for Wesley.

“I’ve come to accept that role because people look to me for inspiration,” she said. “If I’m not sharing my story, how can people understand that they can do the same thing?”

Although Marshall drew laughter by describing the most rewarding part of her job as “going home,” she added a poignant clarification.

“I know a lot of officers who put on the uniform [who] don’t know if they’re going home that day,” she said.

The most gratifying part of Wolford’s job is the people.

“The people are absolutely magical,” she said, adding that she receives compliments — not complaints — from the community. “I acknowledge it, and I make sure that [other firefighters] acknowledge it’s the little things. People surprise you every day.”

Challenges and potentially dangerous situations still abound, but intervening to change people’s lives is what the job is all about for Scarpine.

“You try to deescalate situations when tempers are flaring and sometimes people come back to you and say, ‘You know, I was really angry the other day, but after speaking with you, you really helped me,’” she said.

But things don’t always go well, especially if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Scarpine added.

“You have to make split-second decisions and you also have to take your own safety into consideration,” she said. “Things can escalate very quickly, but I’m thankful for those situations that were handled peacefully.”

Aug. 26 was designated Women’s Equality Day by Congress in 1971.