Since becoming Greenwich’s first-ever paid female firefighter in 1989, Whitney Welch has seen Greenwich at its wildest and weirdest, sometimes both at once. Take Hurricane Sandy.
Power lines were down everywhere. Only the crackle of falling trees broke through the white noise of gale-force winds. As Whitney carefully nosed her eighteen-ton Seagrave fire truck up Riversville Road through slanting sheets of rain to check on a downed utility pole, she found herself worrying most about what might land on her once she got out. Suddenly a car appeared on the road in front of her, horn beeping.
“‘What are you doing out in this?!’ I said, yelling because it was howling, of course,” Whitney recalls. “Actually, I don’t think I was that polite about it. The driver says: ‘We have no power, so we want to go to the J House and get a burger.’ She couldn’t go down anyway, the road was totally blocked. But she didn’t care. She wanted her burger.”
Going Beyond the Call of Duty
Looking out for the community comes naturally, say those who know her best. “Other people get up in the morning thinking of what they can do to have fun,” says her father, longtime Greenwich resident Noble Welch. “Whitney wakes up and thinks about what she can do to help other people.”
In the 1990s, she championed fire safety around town, bringing fire engines to schools to use as mobile classrooms promoting smoke alarms and emergency planning. “In the early days, she had to bang on people’s desks to get enough pamphlets for school visits,” notes Peter Siecienski, Greenwich’s fire chief for the last ten years. “Now the programs we deliver are tailored to different age groups, so the message is something they can relate to. All this is something Whitney started twenty years ago.”
A decade ago, Whitney worked on a department initiative instructing residents on how to install car seats for children. She estimates that she helps install 150 such seats every year. She organizes the Fire Department color guard during annual 9/11 commemorations. In 2001 she spent a day working at Ground Zero and then joined a three-day Manhattan-to-D.C. bicycle trip raising funds for families of emergency personnel who perished in the attacks. And for the last eighteen years she has been overseeing swimming practices at the Greenwich YWCA, as a volunteer coach for the Dolphins. Some evenings she supervises as many as sixty children from kindergarten through high school.
These days, you may see Whitney and her ninety-six-pound Bernese mountain dog, Cinder, making the rounds of local schools, Greenwich Hospital or the Nathaniel Witherell nursing home, cheering up those feeling down. Sally Van Leeuwen, volunteer coordinator at Nathaniel Witherell, has known Whitney and Cinder since January 2013. “Whenever Whitney and Cinder walk into our Alzheimer’s unit, people’s eyes light up,” she says. “It shows them the community is aware of them, cares for them, and wants to interact with them.”
Fitting in all of this activity takes planning and patience, not to mention a desire to serve others that comes naturally to very few. For Whitney, the passion was there as a teenager, on lifeguard duty at the old YMCA pool. Two or three days after she started, she watched an older man swim laps. Suddenly, in the shallow end, he collapsed: heart attack. Whitney hurried over to begin CPR.
“That was a scary day,” she says. “I can picture where I was sitting. I can picture where he was.” She still can hear the crack of his ribs as she began her compressions, and the sudden, irrational thought that she had killed him. In fact, he was already dead. Later she had a quiet talk with her supervisor, who asked if she wanted to go on lifeguarding. Only then, Whitney realized, she did. With that, something changed.
“Maybe some people wouldn’t recover,” she says. “But in this profession you have to recover. Some do so quicker than others.”
For firefighters, a selective memory can be helpful. Driving along the Merritt Parkway, a frequent source of service calls from the Glenville Fire Station where she has been stationed in recent years, Whitney can point out a section of a guardrail she once leapt over to avoid a speeding car. And she still knows the patches of roadway where she found three construction workers laying after their pickup was rammed by a dozing tractor-trailer driver. Other calls, just as hazardous, she remembers only hazily, as if experienced by someone else. Disassociation, psychologists call it.
“My mother always asks me: ‘How do I know nothing’s going to happen to you?’ And I tell her: ‘You don’t.’ I don’t know what can happen today. But we do enough training that hopefully the people who tell me what to do know what they are doing. Knock on wood, the fire gets put out and the day goes as planned. But you never know.”
Many days, the main adversary is boredom and the need to stay vigilant without exhausting oneself in the course of a standard twenty-four-hour shift. Occasionally, there are glimmers of celebrity. Back in June, Whitney and two other Greenwich firefighters found themselves on a Facebook video as they freed a rabbit who got stuck trying to wiggle under a chain-link fence. In less than a week, the video got 32,000 views. “We get more views of animal rescues than people rescues,” she chuckles.
Most of those who serve on the Greenwich Fire Department, at least as paid personnel, are career firefighters who come from places far away. Whitney grew up here. Her family, which includes three sisters, first settled in Greenwich in the early 1970s. Whitney went to Greenwich Country Day School and a few years ago went back for career day. Other alumni were there—CEOs, professors, architects, even a soap-opera actor. “I must be the only one here who gets dirty when they go to work,” she remembers thinking.
Whitney’s education continued upstate at a boarding school, Pomfret. Summers alternated between sleepaway camp and, when she got older, working just off the Greenwich shoreline at Camp Monekewego. Lifeguarding soon became a keystone of her life. She took CPR and basic first-aid classes and volunteered for ambulance calls, which at the time meant joining the Greenwich Fire Department as a volunteer.
Two years later, in July of 1986, Greenwich Emergency Medical Services was born. Looking for a full-time job, young Whitney became one of the town ambulance service’s first employees. Lynn Ridberg, a fellow member of the GEMS inaugural class, still works as a paramedic there. She recalls Whitney as “very levelheaded,” whether demonstrating CPR or jumping in a lake to save a drowning man.
“I think it’s in your blood, you have to have a certain personality type to be in emergency services,” Lynn says. “Not everyone is cut out to do this. You definitely have to have compassion. And you have to be quick-thinking on your feet.” Whitney has all that and something else: “She has to be going all the time. I don’t know her to have a down day. She’s definitely a people person,” says Lynn.
Soon after getting Cinder, her second Bernese, Whitney made the decision to have her trained as a therapy dog. Visiting the cancer ward at Greenwich Hospital or Stamford Hospital requires special patience both for Whitney and her dog. “I have to knock on the door, and ask ‘Would you like a visit from a dog?’” Whitney explains. “Cinder will come in, sit next to the bed, and the person will pet her. If there are family visiting, I talk to them. It’s amazing. If patients are hooked up to machines, you can watch their blood pressure go down, their heart rate go down.”
Rachel Davis, a special-education teacher at Western Middle School, sees Whitney and Cinder as often as once a week. “A lot of my kids have sensory-integration issues,” she says. “Kids with autism have sensory needs. Just touching or brushing Cinder brings a calmness to them. We take Cinder for walks on the football field. They look forward to Cinder, and they look forward to Whitney.”
Leading the Way
Today Whitney is one of only two female firefighters on salary in the town of Greenwich; other women serve as volunteers. Chief Siecienski calls the disparity “a function of numbers,” noting that a difficult admission process and only two openings per year discourages most applicants, female or male. Whitney says that being Greenwich’s first female paid firefighter was an adjustment both for her and the department, made easier by the encouragement of then-Chief John Titsworth and union president Leonard LaLuna, both of whom were backstops of support ready to hear of any trouble.
There was some. “I came into work one day and the other firefighter at the station told me I couldn’t answer the phone,” she recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘My wife can’t know I’m working with you.’ Because it was just me and him. So the whole day I couldn’t answer the phone. It was early in my career, and I just let it go.”
These days, Whitney is less hesitant about taking a stand. She lets leadership know when they need to take into account female firefighters, whether ordering uniforms or designing firehouse improvements. “When they renovated Cos Cob Firehouse, which was the first one they redid, they weren’t putting in separate dorms,” she says. “I said: ‘Are you serious? I know I’m the only female now [this was prior to the town hiring its other paid female firefighter, Lisa Constantino], but down the road you could have ten.’ I sort of made a stink.”
Attitudes have improved, she adds. “I love 99 percent of the people I work with. If you don’t like me, that’s fine. The firehouse is big enough. And when we’re on a call, all that personality stuff goes out the window.”
Whitney is currently ranked eighth in seniority at the department; she qualified for half-pay retirement back in 2009. Many firefighters use the twenty-year milestone as an opportunity to begin a second life less hazardous and grueling. Why not Whitney?
“I don’t have a job I’m dying to go to,” she says. “Everything I do now is geared toward keeping kids safe. That’s why I began teaching kids how to swim. I would lifeguard kids’ parties and there would be eight-year-olds wearing swimmies. That bugged me. If there’s a pool in your backyard, your kids need to learn how to swim.”
While she has no children of her own, Whitney has made herself the de facto swimming instructor for all her nieces and nephews. “She finds safety to be so important,” Lynn says. “I think it’s because in our line of work we see so many senseless injuries and death.”
Whitney has no plans to retire, even with a half-pay pension waiting. She finds the work too gratifying and stimulating to stop now. “I love being a firefighter, because every day is different,” she says. “I once had a job working in an office, at Putnam Buick on East Putnam Avenue where the condos are now. The monotony of doing payroll and warranty slips almost drove me nuts. What I do now, you just don’t know what today is going to bring. And I love that.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
WHITNEY’S ADVICE ON FIRE SAFETY
Have an Exit Plan
“If the fire alarm goes off at three in the morning, what are you going to do? Who is going to get Johnny out of bed? Who is going to get Becky out of her crib? Having an exit plan is huge, but most people don’t have one. If you don’t plan for it, you are going to be bumping into each other. That’s when people get hurt and die.”
“Surprisingly, there are kids who will say ‘119,’ or else ‘1-911,’ because they think they have to dial 1 first. It’s something everyone needs to know.”
Learn by Doing
“If kids are introduced to something, and they have hands-on experience with it, they are more likely to remember it. Stop, drop and roll is a great example. When I visit schools, I have the children practice stop, drop and roll, showing them rolling around is not only fun, it can save your life.”
Crawl Under Smoke
“Crawling low under the smoke, that’s a big one. When we visit schools, we ask them to crawl on the floor, because smoke is going to go up to the ceiling first.”
Practice Makes Permanent
“It’s not ‘Practice Makes Perfect,’ because it’s never perfect. But if you do something enough times, you have a strong chance of doing it right when it really counts.”
Change Your Smoke-Alarm Batteries
“Try to change those batteries as often as you change your clock, at least twice a year.”