They put their lives on the line. Next time you drive down the street and pass a police cruiser, look inside at the driver. Chances are, you may see a woman behind the wheel. The same goes for a fire truck — and we’re not talking a small rig, rather the immense model carrying hundreds of gallons of water and countless feet of hose. Who are these women who are willing to put their lives on the line, day in and day out, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, our world will be a little bit safer? They’re doing what used to be exclusively a man’s job, and they’re finally receiving their due. These women are being lauded for their efforts, not because they’re women, but because they are willing to work selflessly to ensure that Denver’s citizens feel protected, cared for and safe.
DENVER WOMAN spoke with four dedicated women who have committed their lives to this effort. These women are truly heroes, in our eyes, and in the eyes of the community.
captain, Denver Fire Department
Colley Fisher remembers when, as a newer recruit in the Denver Fire Department, she would respond to calls from a local senior care facility:
“I would walk in carrying all the hoses and heavy equipment, and the older women residents would look over and say, ‘Look at the fire girl. You men need to help her carry all that stuff. It’s too heavy for her!’” Despite their good intentions, she continued to pull her weight, and today, she is captain of Denver Fire Station 29. A petite and energetic blonde, Fisher smiles when she ponders the winding road that has brought her so much pleasure, although she has seen more than her share of pain along the way. “I remember I was working as a police officer. My oldest son was 2, I had newborn twins, and shortly after that my mother passed away,” Fisher recalls. “It made me realize that my family was the most important thing in my life, and I thought it was time to look at what would work best for us.”
As a young girl, Fisher understood that being a policeman or firefighter did not appeal to many women. Yet she always harbored an affinity for toys that were typically geared toward boys. “When I was 7, I got a flashlight and a pair of toy pistols for Christmas,” she recalls. “I loved them, even though I knew these were not what the other girls were playing with.” Fisher grew up in a single-parent household, where her mother always worked two jobs, cleaning houses during the day and tending bar at night. The hard work took its toll, and her mother died at age 52. “My mother modeled for me that you can do anything you want to do,” Fisher reflects. “It never crossed my mind that I could not do something. It was never about being a woman or making a stand by becoming a fireman. I remember one time when I was starting out, one of the male firefighters asked me what made me think I could do this. He was older and ready to retire. I looked at him and asked him what made him think I couldn’t. It wasn’t that he doubted me. It was more that he couldn’t fathom the idea that a woman could drive a fire truck.”
Fisher’s career took off after she received an associate’s degree in fire science and criminal justice. She worked as a police officer for seven years and then transferred to the fire department, no small feat for a wife and mother with twin 1- year-olds and a 3-year-old at home. Her husband, a police officer himself, helped her with tag-team parenting, pitching in when she worked 24-hour shifts. While the job is extremely demanding, Fisher admits she loves the work, the camaraderie and the rewards that are doled out on a daily basis. “As a woman, life is all about diversity, and fortunately, the Denver Fire Department reflects all of this. Every day, I see a lot of people who have suffered the loss of their home or a loved one, and the department reflects the community as a whole in this regard,” she says. “We’re dealing with people from all socioeconomic groups, and because we reflect all those people, we can relate to them.” As one of a handful of women working in the ranks of the Denver fire department (which has approximately 36 women out of 950 firefighters), Fisher is undaunted by her rank. Before being promoted to captain, she was an engineer, driving the rigs, running the pumps and working the ladders. “In life, any time people are trying to make a change, they face an uphill battle, and I’ve been able to win people over by proving that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to succeed,” she says. “I’ve overcome the obstacles, and I do everything from carrying the hose to performing CPR, to putting people in ambulances and securing cars at accident scenes. I never expect preferential treatment because I’m a woman because I’m getting paid the same money as everyone else. We work as teams, and the team is only as strong as its weakest link,” she explains. The solid example Fisher sets at work carries through to her home life as well. Her sons appreciate her commitment and learned early on that their mom’s job was demanding and worthy of respect.
“They’ve really never known anything different because they’ve grown up with this,” she says. ”I remember one time when my son was in kindergarten, and I’d been out working all night in a huge snowstorm, clearing roads and moving trees. I came to his school to pick him up, and I was still wearing my bunker pants. Some boys laughed and said girls can’t be firefighters, and my son got so mad he nearly started to fight. My feeling is this. If my boys want to be police officers or firefighters, I’d be proud. But I want more for my kids than what I had, and I want them to find their own calling.” For Fisher, the demanding life of a firefighter pays off in ways too numerous to count: “As firefighters, we help one family at a time. It’s a very personal relationship we have with the community, and while we can’t always save every person we help, we can always make it better. Maybe a family’s house is burning down, but we can still save the people living there or rescue the family photos. Or at the very least we can save the people long enough for them to say goodbye to a loved one. Every day is different, and every day is wonderful.”
commander, Denver Police Department
For Tracie Keesee, it’s not enough that she’s risen to the top of her profession. As commander of the Denver Police District Three, she continues to pursue her goal of lifelong education that in the end, she believes, will enable her to better understand and help her fellow human beings. A native Coloradan, Keesee obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Colorado. She contemplated law school, but soon realized that from a service standpoint, law enforcement was a much better fit. “I was married, and my daughter was 8 years old. I was taking law classes, and I had a very heavy load in the evenings. I found that police work combined the best of both worlds. I had the law piece, but I also had the community piece, which was so important,” she recalls. Keesee is quick to acknowledge that strong family support made her career choice much easier. “I never had to worry about issues such as day care, but I did have my mom, who liked to remind me that while police work did have aspects of the law that I loved, in the courtroom people weren’t constantly shooting at you,” she smiles. Not surprisingly, Keesee’s mother was less than thrilled with her career of choice, worrying about the danger her daughter would face. “My mom tried her hardest to talk me out of this, and when the department did a background check on me, I asked them not to even talk to her,” she says. “It took her about four years to accept my career choice. It wasn’t that she doubted my ability to do the job, but she was worried about the safety.”
Her great-grandmother, however, had a different attitude. “She was absolutely thrilled, and this came from a generational standpoint. As a woman who grew up in the early 1900s, this type of work was not even an option, and she believed that if you had the opportunity to do something important, you should grab it,” she reflects. Indeed, it takes a special type of person who can give so much to the community, yet remain motivated to show up for work every day in the face of so much danger. “I think what I’ve learned along the way is that not everyone you deal with is bad, but it can impact you, nonetheless,” she says. “I’ve learned to rely heavily on peer support. In the end, this was a career choice for me, and I’ve never considered it to be anything different. And I have to say it’s been a great choice. The years have literally flown by.” For Keesee, and other women who choose the demanding career of law enforcement, the road is not always easy. With relatively few women in her ranks, the role models she watched were nothing short of inspiring. “I came in on the heels of some fabulous women who literally had to break ground and endure constant doubts about whether a woman could do this type of work,” she continues. ”But as women, we have an advantage, in that we’re more verbal. I’ve watched some very smallstatured women talk big men into handcuffs without ever using Mace or a gun.”
The dramatic strides the department has taken were strongly evidenced in changes made over the last quarter century. “In the 1970s, the handful of women who were in law enforcement were the true survivors,” Keesee says. “They still had to wear skirts, and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that they were allowed to go on patrols. The overall attitude has changed so much, and now there are wonderful peer support and mentoring programs in place.” After 25 years, Keesee still becomes enthusiastic when reflecting on certain aspects of her job. “Patrol has always been so much fun because of the contact with the community,” she comments. As a district commander, she is involved in managing resources and is responsible for a fairly large geographic segment of the city. “I think the greatest thing that happened to this department is that we opened our doors to the community and let the people living in those neighborhoods tell us how we could best serve them and how we could better deal with crime in their communities. It has kept us responsive and helps us constantly gauge if we’re on the mark. It’s a shared responsibility, and it keeps everything in balance,” she says.
As part of that communitywide focus, diversity has remained a core component to effectively connecting with, and representing, the population served by the department. She explains, “Blacks and women are a big segment of the community, but it’s not enough just to have those numbers in place. It’s so much more important to bring in the best-qualified people, who can keep up from a mental and physical standpoint. Many women have a difficult time with the violence aspect of this job, and that’s a strong deterrent.” Now a grandmother herself, Keesee acknowledges that one of the more challenging parts of her job was to shield her daughter from the unpleasantness that was a part of her day-to-day life. “As a mom, I always made a conscious effort not to talk about the negative things that were going on at work and to focus instead on how I was able to help people,” she says. “It’s more difficult today, because the media age brings news home immediately, so it’s harder to balance the good vs. evil, meaning there’s more education that needs to happen. For parents such as myself, the goal is to keep things in balance, to keep the kids occupied and involved in different activities, and to make sure we’re always there for them.”
For Keesee, the night shifts were some of her more difficult times on the job, especially when her daughter was young. “You couldn’t come to work from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and not worry about whether your children were OK. I was lucky, in that I had great family support, which reduced my stress level tremendously. Having those things in place was huge. I’ve seen so many single moms who try doing this job and end up leaving because of the stress of trying to balance the family situation. That’s why we try to make sure they understand the impact on the family, and it’s not limited to day care. It’s also a health issue, including sleeping, eating and exercising,” she explains. Keesee’s face lights up when she imagines the future: “The years have gone by so fast, and I love the fact that I’m still having a good time. There’s always something new to learn, and the community is always changing.” To keep up with the changes, Keesee has been working on her Ph.D. in cultural communications, which she expects to complete in June. She says, “This was a personal goal, one I wanted to complete in four years. As someone who was born and raised in Denver, I love being able to give back to a community that has brought me so much, and I hope to continue doing this until they kick me out.”
emergency room doctor, Rose Medical Center
As a child, Susan Ryan understood that one day she would be a physician. In fact, her mother often told her she came out of the womb talking about being a doctor. In elementary school, she told her teacher she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, and the teacher said, “I think you mean a nurse.” “My favorite game was Operation, and I’d play it under my sheets at night,” she recalls. “Then one day, when I was in the fourth grade, my uncle gave me a book. It was a thick medical textbook, and I loved to study the pictures. Then, in the sixth grade, I got hold of a book that told how to get into medical school. I quickly learned the important facts, such as what MCAT scores I had to have!” Unlike the rest of her family members, who are lawyers, architects and politicians, she chose to focus on saving the lives of strangers. Today, as an emergency room doctor at Rose Medical Center, she has the privilege, and the challenge, of treating patients with ailments of every size, shape and scope. Ryan’s first real-life medical experience came in college, when she trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT), riding in an ambulance and stabilizing patients. This afforded her the opportunity to work with emergency room doctors, and it was also here that she first realized the adrenaline rush that came from working in this capacity.
In medical school, she initially focused on sports medicine and orthopedics, but soon changed her mind, believing they were less stimulating and emotionally challenging than she preferred. Clearly, her desire to live on the edge and to never stop moving was much better suited to working in the ER. “In my job, you’re always at the forefront of the action. Specialists turn to us to stabilize the patient, and in that way we can buy people time,” she says. In the end, Ryan completed a sports medicine fellowship and spent some time practicing in Winter Park, treating fractures, heart attack victims, twisted knees and broken wrists. While the work sounds tough, Ryan admits it’s much less grueling than being in the ER at Rose, where much more complex cases present themselves on a regular basis. There were some high points, however, to being in the field of sports medicine. “It really was fun, and I had the opportunity to travel with elite teams, including the U.S. Olympic team and the pro rodeo circuit,” she recalls. “The rodeo competitors are amazing. They have no protection, and by far they were the toughest and the most appreciative of our work.” Clearly, Ryan thrives in the ER and treats each day like a new and different challenge. Just as clearly, she cares about the wellbeing of her patients and makes it her life’s work to treat every case with the utmost care and compassion. To listen to Ryan, the choice to become an ER doctor is not one made frivolously, and the turnover in this area is low.
“ER doctors are typically more active and more prone to taking risks,” she says. “They may move settings, such as from a county hospital to an urban one, but they stay in this field. There’s a danger, or maybe a belief, that ER doctors become more cynical because this is the place where everyone gets dumped. So we have to make a conscious choice to remember what drew us to this area in the first place and to be more empathic as a result. “There’s so much more juggling of medical issues, because if I do one procedure, it could mean that something else may be more devastating for the patient,” she explains. “This is an imperfect world, and sometimes we find ourselves boxed into a corner with very few good choices. We have to make split-second decisions, so we have to keep our perspective about what we’re going to accomplish on a case-by-case basis.” Unlike specialists who treat a certain category of patients, ER doctors see the gamut of individuals, ranging from the wealthy and privileged to the indigent. “It’s interesting to watch the more well-off patients because they don’t always understand the triage aspect of this environment,” she acknowledges. “But in treating them, it’s all about keeping perspective, and at some point every doctor has to navigate the path that works best for him or her. It’s rare to find a doctor who can practice a more holistic approach to medicine because most patient care today is more focused on the intellectual components. The intellectual process is cultivated in medical school, but the emotional feeling part is not.”
That sentiment begs the question of how attached physicians should — or do — become to their patients. The question becomes even cloudier in a domain such as the ER. “My belief is that doctors should become attached to the patient, but they should be careful of the boundary and not let it become such a power that it affects the decision making,” Ryan says. “Good doctors do care, and even the ones who appear more removed really do care on some level. Most doctors, in the dark of the night, will toss and turn over their decisions.” And how have her decisions affected Ryan? After 17 years of practice, she candidly admits that she can still remember the faces of the patients who have died in her care. “It’s my job to be their advocate, and even if I can’t save them, I can put them at ease,” she says. Ryan vividly recalls attending a conference that she says literally changed her perspective on medicine and its outcomes: “I learned that as a group, doctors have specific memories of an event that occurred before the age of 10 concerning some type of suffering by others. In contrast, lawyers have a memory of the first moment they saw an injustice. I believe that each of us needs to remember why we selected the path we did and to continue on that road.”
Today, Ryan is committed to helping new residents understand the importance of bringing compassion and empathy to a field that is based largely on science and facts. To that end, she developed a program that teams horses with residents, teaching the residents to read and understand the horse’s body language. “Horses don’t put up with arrogance, and they will not tolerate it. This teaches the residents how to be more understanding and how to read what and how much a patient can hear,” she says. “You can tell a patient he has cancer, and he’s not going to hear a single thing after that. This type of information must be presented in a caring way. People say medicine is a science, but I think it’s an art. We need to interpret what will work on a case-by-case basis, and these types of fluid challenges require a great deal of sensitivity,” she says emphatically.
Operations Manager, 911 Dispatch Center
From a young age, most of us are taught that in the case of an emergency, we should find a phone and dial 9-1-1. Yet how many of us have ever stopped to wonder who are the voices on the other end, and how do they deal with the trauma and urgent needs that besiege them every day? For Carole Workman, who manages and oversees the police dispatch unit for the Denver area, it comes down to training and effective response. “There are so many aspects to this job, and the extensive training program ensures that the dispatchers can responsibly handle all of them,” Workman says. “They begin by learning how to handle the various types of calls and how to recognize the more urgent ones. Before they are ever left alone on the floor answering calls, trainees must work with a supervisor for at least two months, during which time they are continuously monitored.” Workman’s role with the dispatch center is somewhat unusual because of her background in public safety. A relative newcomer to the department (her work here began just one year ago), she worked for several years for the city of Westminster in various capacities, including police dispatcher and communications supervisor.
In addition to learning a new job, Workman believes her greatest day-to-day challenges lie in understanding how the city of Denver handles certain situations and ensuring that current policies and procedures are working. Add to that the fact that until one year ago, the department consisted of all sworn personnel, including policemen and police captains. When the decision was made to move to a civilian-based staff, which would free up officers to return to fieldwork, the department took on a very different flavor. She explains, “Before coming here, I had been with the city of Westminster, working in the communications center. I was taking on more and more work, and a position opened up in the chief’s office, which allowed me to do more in the areas of budgeting, performance measurement and crime analysis, while still helping out in the 911 dispatch unit. “The opportunity to work in the Denver center came up, and it was very exciting. The Democratic National Convention is coming, we had the World Series, and there is so much happening in the city. But there’s a lot more pressure here, because in addition to the city being run differently, I’m new to Denver’s politics and policies, and others working here may worry about policy changes that are being implemented,” she acknowledges.
Add to that the fact that Workman must learn an entirely different computer system and how to function effectively within a different chain of command. All the while, she tries to keep the wheels turning smoothly to enable the dispatchers to do the best possible job. “As a dispatcher, there are a lot of calls coming in, and at times it can be extremely challenging to separate each call,” she says. “Each call is different, and some callers are much better able to handle emergencies than others. So we have to take each call individually, and while one caller may be calm, the next may be yelling and the next crying. I’ve always believed the way to handle it is, ‘How would you want your mother or sisters to be treated if they were calling in?’ It’s important to be empathic and not to lecture or berate the callers.” The job of dispatcher entails much, much more than fielding calls from upset or irate callers. After receiving a call, the dispatcher must decide where to send it and to decipher what is happening on the scene. “The dispatcher’s primary responsibility is officer safety, and we have to make sure we’re airing all pertinent information to the officer via the radio,” Workman explains. “We may be putting someone’s life on the line, and it takes a special type of person to shoulder that responsibility.”
Once a call is received, it’s up to the dispatcher to decide whether it’s a police, medical or fire emergency. If it’s a police call, for example, the 911 agent provides pertinent information over the radio and at the same time sends the call to police dispatch to determine if support is needed. “We look at each event type, and there are more than 100. It’s up to the dispatchers to know all the event types and to make fast decisions about what type of response is needed. The guiding rule here is that life over property is the priority,” Workman says. Typically, the most effective dispatchers have strong personalities, possess a lot of common sense and are good at multitasking. They must be able to hear, type, decipher and talk at the same time. “This is a job that has a lot of stress, and the dispatcher must be able to handle it,” Workman says. “It gets to the point that sometimes you think the night will never end.” Probably the most difficult part of the job, according to Workman, is that the dispatcher must be able to endure uncertainty and pain. “We hear officers calling for help or the cry that someone has been shot. There are critical events that occur on a weekly basis, such as vehicle or foot pursuits, and they can have dramatic endings. It’s part of the job, but it’s never easy,” she says.
Admittedly, the best part of the dispatcher’s job is knowing that the police officers who were alerted to an emergency go home safe at the end of the day. “That is a gratifying feeling, knowing that we are doing our part to keep citizens and officers safe,” Workman says. “It’s unfortunate that dispatchers and call takers are underappreciated as a group. We get yelled at, and while sometimes we do get recognized for our efforts, more often we hear about the bad. We see the pictures in the paper the next day that show what happened on some of the calls. Some are terrible, some not so bad. But at the end of the day, you have to let it go.”
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography KIT WILLIAMS