Women Fire Fighter in Charlotte

Showing Courage and Inspiring the Next Generation

By Anders J. Hare

Molly Williams was the first known female firefighter –– and first known Black firefighter––in the U.S., working with the New York City Fire Department on Oceanus Company No. 11 in the 1780s. With 250 years between then and now, experts still say integrating women into departments and organizations that have been bastions of all-male “homes-away-from-home” has not been easy.

Only 9 percent of firefighters in the U.S. in 2020 were women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Regardless of the statistics, female fighters everywhere continue to save countless lives and serve their communities, including three women with the Charlotte Fire Department.

Battalion Chief Trina Davies was promoted to her role in May after joining Charlotte Fire in 2007. Originally from England, Davies came to the U.S. at 18 in hopes of becoming a firefighter after serving as a cadet in the Royal Air Force. Davies said she was unable to serve as a firefighter in the U.K. because of a height requirement in place at the time. She came to the U.S. as a nanny, eventually joining the Rochester Fire Department in New York.

Davies is now the only female chief in any role at Charlotte Fire, juggling being a mother of two and the leader of Charlotte Fire’s C-shift crews. Despite those obstacles, she still encourages other women in the fire service to continue pursuing their careers.

“If you’re a single mom with kids, don’t let that stop you from continuing your career,” Davies said. “There’s always avenues where you can pursue your dream and still fulfill your family needs at home.”

Motherhood is a subject many women in the fire service know all too well, including Talor Lee, a member of the Charlotte Fire Battalion, who recently gave birth to her first child.

A native of Charlotte, Lee spent a lot of time at fire stations growing up with her dad, who worked as a mechanic for the city. In 2017, she joined Camp Ignite, a nonprofit organization that  aims to build the character of high school girls while introducing them to the Fire Department and other public services.

Out of the 1,088 firefighters employed by Charlotte Fire, only 41 are women, and only eight of those women are people of color. This year, Camp Ignite received 122 applications, the most ever in its history. Lee said the program helped her realize she’d have to earn her spot in the fire department just like any other male firefighter would.

“No one’s gonna give you pity for being a girl,” Lee said. “No one’s gonna give you an easy way out or do anything to make this job easier for you. It’s a job that takes physical, mental and emotional strength. And if you put your mind to it, you can have all of that.”

Lee officially began her career with Charlotte Fire in 2021. One of the biggest obstacles she faced was her own doubts that she become, and she credits Camp Ignite for helping alleviate that doubt. More young women could benefit from programs like Camp Ignite, Lee said.

“I think we need to approach the younger generation and get it in their head that they can do this. Even if they don’t go toward the fire department, just give them the courage and the enthusiasm and drive to go for something that they never thought they could actually do,” Davies said.

Not all firefighters know they want to serve at a young age. Take Holly Forbes Johnson, a firefighter at Station 38, for example. Johnson worked at the YMCA for years before she began the EMT program and met the battalion chief that ignited her career in fire service.

“You have to keep so many continuing education (CE) hours to keep your EMT certification up on a yearly basis, so I needed to be somewhere where I could do those CE hours,” Johnson explained. I joined the local volunteer fire department, the Steele Creek Fire Department, that was by my house, so that I could keep up my EMT hours to keep my certification going.”

She continued, “I just saw all the cool fire stuff they were doing… And I would come to work and tell that battalion chief the different things that I was doing. One day, he asked me, ‘Have you ever thought… and I told him, ‘Yeah. But I’m kind of old. And I’m a mom.’ The next day came up to me and he’s like, ‘You know what, I think you’re right. You may be a little old for it.’ And I looked at him and said ‘You’re gonna watch me do it.’”

Johnson is now the mother of two boys and also the only female member of Charlotte Fire’s dive team. In April, the Charlotte North Rotary Club (CNR) gave Johnson the  the Community Service Above Self Award.. The CNR first presented the award in 1982, and it’s meant to recognize the contributions of firefighters who put their lives on the line.

Johnson said she hopes her receiving the award inspires the next generation, including her sons, and other young people, to continue to be good stewards of their communities.

She said, “It’s all about just teaching humans to be better and help one another.”