HIGHGATE — As a captain in the Highgate Fire Department, Tammy Rouse risked her life for years to save the lives and belongings of others.
Now a grandmother, Rouse, 43, spends her days watching over her giggling, toothy one and two year old grandkids, only going on call in the middle of the night.
Growing up in Franklin, Rouse filled her time playing outdoors, riding horses and helping her dad fix up cars.
“I’d rather be outside in the barn than inside the house any day,” Rouse said. “I guess I was just your typical tomboy,” preferring jeans and a t-shirt to make up and dresses.
Rouse’s dad was a military man. When he died unexpectedly four days before her 16th birthday, Rouse said it was a turning point. “I was daddy’s little girl,” she explained.
She started hanging “with the guys,” more and more and one day, her group of friends drove by a fire scene, with curious eyes and questions for the firefighters on scene.
“A few of the guys said, ‘If you want to see what’s going on in a fire scene, then you need to be on the fire department.’” Rouse recalled. “So that’s what I did.”
At the time, Rouse lived across the street from the Franklin Fire Department. “I went to the station Monday night and that was 20 something years ago,” she said.
Rouse said she always knew she would pursue an untraditional female career because of her dad. “So when the opportunity came for the fire service, it was kind of a way to help the community and feel like I was doing something that he would be proud of,” she said.
“It’s one of those things that you either love it and you can do it or you can’t,” Rouse said, trying to describe fighting fires. “You can’t say, ‘Well I’m just gonna do it because I want to drive a big red fire truck.’”
Rouse said as a female, the start of her career was tough. “I’m short. I’m smaller,” she said. “There’s things just physically that I can’t do.”
“There were people, guys, who said you’re never going to drive a fire truck,” Rouse remembered. “You’re never going to go into a burning building. But I’m the type of person that if you tell me I can’t do it, I’m going to find a way.”
During a fire fighting essentials class, the instructor told Rouse that she was going to carry him down a ladder. “He was a bigger guy so I said, ‘How am I going to do that?” Rouse asked.
With determination and the right technique, she carried the man, twice her size, down the ladder.
“I was the only girl and I had to believe that I could do it,” she said, in order to succeed.
Rouse said when she transitioned to the Highgate Fire Department in ’97 work relationships became easier because her reputation preceded her arrival.
Rouse had previous experience fighting fires alongside the Highgate Fire Department and completed the 200-hour Fire 1 training course.
“The guys knew who I was, knew that I could actually do the job,” she said. “I didn’t have to prove myself as much as I did when I started in Franklin.”
“It’s a brotherhood,” Rouse said. She recalled a training when the instructor looked out at the class and addressed everyone as firemen. When he saw Rouse, he corrected himself and said firefighters.
But that wasn’t what Rouse wanted.
“I said, ‘No. I earned the right to be one of the guys,’” Rouse said. “I didn’t join the fire department for them to change things for me.”
“The way I see it, if you want to join the fire department, there shouldn’t be a separate set of rules for guys and girls,” she said. “This is the standard and everybody needs to meet the standard regardless.”
Rouse said the guys don’t typically like to let her run the chainsaw though. It might be for other reasons, she admitted laughing.
Rouse said she fights fires to save people, their belongings and their memories. Sometimes it’s the house; sometimes it’s the cat that has been in the family forever.
“It’s knowing that I’ve been there to be able to do what I can,” Rouse said. “That’s why I do it.”
“The day I go to a car accident or a fire scene and I come home and I can’t handle it, then it’ll be time for me to let somebody else take over,” she said.
Rouse said right now she can compartmentalize and past fires don’t haunt her.
“They’re there,” she said. “You never forget them, but at the same time, you can’t think about it every day.”
Rouse said living in a small community can be hard. She knows almost everyone from her career as a firefighter and working in a school for 14 years.
Sometimes this familiarity has a positive effect though.
Rouse said a student who she worked with in middle school got into a car accident. He had long since graduated from high school and hadn’t seen Rouse in years. But when he heard her voice, he asked, ‘Hey, is that Mrs. Rouse? I know her.’
“Holding that kid’s hand and being with him at the hospital until family members got there,” Rouse said, “that’s why you do it.”
Rouse now serves as the captain at the Highgate Fire Station, a county training officer, one of the county representatives on the Vermont State Firefighters Association and a member of the Franklin-Lamoille Fire School committee.
Rouse said the transition into being an authority figure in fire education was strange.
“When I started, there were not many females in the fire service at all [and] it took me a while to earn trust and respect,” she said. “Now I think I can walk into almost any fire station in Franklin County… and at least one or two people at each station know who I am.”
At first she worried about training people who’d been fighting fires longer than she’d been alive. “What am I going to have to offer?” Rouse wondered.
But during her last class, a fire chief approached her, dispelling these thoughts of insecurity. “He said to me, ‘You know? I learned stuff from you. Keep doing what you’re doing,’” Rouse said. “Hearing that is what keeps me focused on finding the new trainings.”
She spends Monday nights at the Highgate Fire Department for their weekly meetings. On the other nights, she visits other fire departments in the county and spends some of her weekends leading different trainings.
During the day, Rouse spends her time rolling around on the floor with four children, all under the age of 6. Two of them, Blake and Kelby, are her own grandchildren.
She retired from working in the school system last June in order to take care of the grandkids from 6:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. while her daughter goes to work.
Rouse is no stranger to the difficulty of balancing family and fighting fires.
“Joining the fire department is not just a commitment that you make on your own,” she said. “It’s a commitment that your whole family has to make.”
The pager could go off in the middle of a birthday party or Christmas dinner and you have to leave, Rouse said.
“I think for my kids, having lived that for their entire lives, my son is leaving for college in June and he has no desire” to ever become a firefighter, she said.
This new family commitment makes leaving for calls during the day no longer an option for Rouse.
“It’s frustrating, especially when you sit here and you listen to everything that’s going on,” Rouse said, as the dispatch radio quietly went off in the background.
If she tried to leave for a call, Rouse estimated that it would take half an hour minimum before she could find someone to watch the grandchildren.
“Speed is definitely gone,” she laughed. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love having them here.”
“I do have my radio,” she continued. “The guys know that I can’t get to the scene, but they know, if they need something and holler on the radio, that I will do what I can to make it happen.” That might be as simple as being the contact person if the firefighters don’t have cell service when they arrive on scene.
“More so my problem now is that I have degenerative disc disease,” she said. “The discs in my spine are deteriorating.”
Five years ago, Rouse had surgery to keep the disease at bay but she feels it coming back. She will have to have surgery again soon.
“It will keep eating away at my spine until eventually I won’t be able to do this anymore,” she said. “I’m not looking forward to that day, but its coming, I know it is.”
“That’s why I’m staying involved in other parts of the fire service,” Rouse said. She hopes to continue serving as a fire science educator for years after she can’t be on scene anymore.
“I don’t foresee myself ever leaving the fire service,” she said. “I’ll stay there in one way or the other. It’s been so much a part of my life for so long that it’s too much of who I am at this point.”