I still lacked the courage
By Angela Hughes
The year was 1986, Paramedic Biology was my first introduction into the world of EMS. The class provided all the skills taught in EMT without a certification. This led to my interest in the volunteer fire service. At the age of 16, I was so excited to make a difference. I convinced a good friend to join me in applying for the local department. I shared what a good opportunity this would be to obtain training for something we were both intrigued by. With just CPR and a test to show we could locate equipment on the ambulance, we could be cleared to ride as an observer on the ambulance. We were both incredibly excited until one meeting night. My friend and I were called into the office by two company officers. “What are your intentions?” we were asked, “because if it is to meet boys, don’t let the door hit you in the ….” Shocked could best describe my feelings; my friend was angry. I wanted to make a difference, to learn and be involved–all the attributes that I believed to be important as a volunteer. This conversation crushed me, but I was determined not to give up. I was determined to prove them wrong. I could not even begin to understand why they thought I was there to “meet boys.” I continued to show up and prove I had what it took. My friend had no desire to return. I tried to convince her, but she would have nothing to do with a place where she did not feel wanted.
A few weeks went by, and those same officers called me back into the office. All I could think was, “What did I do wrong now?” I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that that conversation a few weeks earlier was not intended for me. They did not like the way my friend dressed: Her pants were too tight; she was “dolled up “when she came to the station. They told me I had potential; they could see it in me. I had potential; those words resonated in my head the night I was raped at that firehouse.
It was a weeknight, and schools had closed for the next day due to snow. There was normally a curfew on school nights of 9 p.m. Since school had announced the closing for the next day, I could spend the night. One of the regulars who rode the ambulance called me at home (way before we had cellular devices) and told me how much fun it would be to run calls in the snow. They called themselves “storm troopers.” As my father pulled into the parking lot, there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot. He looked at me and said, “Storm troopers, huh?” I promised him others were coming. They did come, but by then the damage had been done.
Sitting on a beat-up couch in the day room reading a book, I felt a touch on my shoulders. I looked up to see one of the regulars, a man I had not had much contact with. He was a part of the normal weeknight crew that stayed, one of those who thought the firehouse needed him to survive. I always sensed a bit of arrogance from this man and kept my distance. As he touched my shoulders, I looked up, shrugged, then moved away. I walked into the captain’s office, looking out the window for someone else to show up, anyone. As I watched the snow fall, I heard footsteps and the door shut and lock. He again started to rub my shoulders as he pressed me against the window. Then his hands moved. All I could think was, “Why? Why is this happening?” In the same room where I was told I had potential, I was raped–forced onto a desk with a hard metal storage bin pressing into my back. After he was done, I went into the bathroom, cried, and washed every bit of him off me using brown commercial paper towels. They felt so rough as I frantically scrubbed until my skin was red and irritated. I was stranded there until the next day, left feeling dirty, wondering what I had done to deserve this. I wondered, “Was this another technique to get rid of me?”
Why do I tell you this? I thought my story was different until I became an advocate; then I was shocked to find out I was not alone. Why didn’t I report it? I tried. I called a rape crisis center, which later sent a letter to my house. I will never forget the look on my father’s face as he handed me that letter, asking me if I had something to tell him. Assuring him it was for a friend, I closed up, trying to forget. I was ashamed of the stigma that came along with being a victim. Why did I stay a member of this volunteer department? I left for a while, until someone called to check on why I had not been around. There had been a falling out between the leadership and many of the regulars. My rapist left for a different volunteer department. It was safe to come back.
For years, I didn’t share my assault with anyone outside of my close circle. My family and friends knew. As an advocate, I worked behind the scenes to provide resources. Women in Fire produced a video* in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to educate fire service leaders. Many were in disbelief, yet I still lacked the courage to share what happened to me.
In the #metoo society, there are many doubts about victims coming forward years later. I know personally there are opportunistic people in this world who fabricate accusations to hurt others. It changes lives, but so does actual rape. Over the years, I have faced so many emotions, but I now recognize I must be a vocal part of the change. My biggest regret was not following through with reporting it, wondering who else he hurt. This year, I retired from a much-loved career. Emotionally exhausted from the past, no longer afraid of retribution, I realize I can’t change the past, but I pledge to change the future.
What can you do as members of the fire service? Open your mind and realize we have work to do. As first responders, we are at an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, and suicide. Fear of repercussions and shame kept me from sharing my story, but I did not quit. I am no longer ashamed. I SURVIVED. How many others have not?
Captain (Ret.) Angela Hughes, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, began as a paramedic with the Baltimore City (MD) Fire Department in 1989. She was hired by Baltimore County in 1992 and functioned as a paramedic, preceptor/coach, firefighter, fire marshal, lieutenant, and captain. She is the past president of Women in Fire and serves on its Advisory Board. Her committee work includes the USFA Severity of House Fires, FEMA grant reviews, VCOS Diversity and Inclusion, National Fallen Firefighters Tampa 2, NFFF Suicide Symposium, NFPA Needs Assessment Summit, and NFPA First Responder Forum. She has been published in Fire Rescue and serves on the FDIC/Fire Engineering Advisory Board. She gave the keynote “Be Your Own Hero” at FDIC International 2017.