Thank You to First Responders Like Fire Education Captain Carol Milligan Reardon

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Photo by Briana Brough

Carol has spent most of her life in Durham, and most of her life as a member of the city’s fire department. She received her high school diploma from Durham Technical Community College and immediately applied to the department in 1987. She was hired in 1989 as a firefighter, then became a driver and then was promoted to captain in 2003. Just last year, she stepped into the role of fire education captain. She’s the department’s longest-serving female firefighter. She has three children, William, 26, Patrick, 24, and Caitlin, 22, and two stepchildren, Megan, 26, and Zachary, 24. She and her husband, Sean – a driver with the department – live in Bahama, enjoy woodworking and, Carol says, “because I don’t fight fires anymore, I make my husband take me to ride roller coasters.”

It was at her grandmother’s house in Massachusetts when an 8-year-old Carol told her mother she was going to be a fire truck. “We were watching the wildfires out in California,” Carol recalls, “and I said, ‘Mom, if I ever go into the woods, I’m bringing a hose with me, because when I grow up, I’m going to be a fire truck.’ I just didn’t know it was [called] a firefighter.”

Her mom was fully behind her – “she really is the only person who said, ‘You can do anything that you want to do,’” Carol says – but not everyone was. “Things were different back then,” Carol explains. “Men didn’t really want women [in the fire department]. The No. 1 thing I would hear was that ‘they’ve lowered the standards to hire women.’”

Certain stations would only allow women to work in the mornings because they didn’t want them bunking with men. Some stations didn’t want to work with women at all. Gear would be too loose for women and would fall off. “You were still kind of treated like a rookie,” Carol says. “Some women might just fall into that and try to be one of the guys, but I just never did that. I’m a very proud woman. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I embrace the difference that I bring. I will never be this kickass firefighter. I don’t want to be. I’m not going [into fires], tearing crap up. I embrace building. I embrace nurturing.”

Four years into her job, Carol gave birth to her son, which set into motion the development of a maternity policy. “To this day, I’m still the only female to have kids and come back to work,” Carol says. “I took a lot of grief for that. There were people – family members, other firefighters – who would say, ‘You leave your kid for 24 hours, how can you do that? You’re not a mom.’ … I did have to miss holidays, but when you are there, you make every minute count. Also, too, it’s great when a kid looks at you as their mom and says, ‘Look what my mom does. She can save lives. She’s been with people who have lost lives.’ It’s a sense of purpose for me, and it’s instilling a sense of duty and service to my kids and always trying to show them [to] not take life for granted.”

Carol admits that it’s not easy coming off a hard shift that leaves you physically and sometimes emotionally drained, and still having to be a mom when you walk in the door. Especially a shift that hits close to home. “There was a call, and it was a young child that was lying on the floor,” Carol remembers. “And the child was the same age as my daughter. I picked the child up, and right then, she took her last breath. I can still to this day feel that child’s hair in my hand. How I get through it is, I had to speak to the District Attorney, and the D.A. said to me, ‘as a parent there is no greater gift than knowing another loving parent – a mom – was holding their child as they passed.’  That has always stuck with me because that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to make a difference. I’m here to make the worst thing better just with compassion and love. These hands, that’s what they are for. It is not about me. It’s about what love I can give.”

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Amanda MacLaren

Amanda MacLaren

Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Arizona, she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for eight years. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Guasaca.

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