After 23 years, Bartow County Fire Department’s first — and highest-ranking — female leaves fire service
by Jessica Loeding
Nov 12, 2012 | 4703 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow County Fire Department Capt. Colleen Cochran adjusts a self-contained breathing apparatus in an engine in 2009. Cochran took over the county’s SCBA program 18 years ago, maintaining the systems for all of Bartow’s firefighters.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News, File
Bartow County Fire Department Capt. Colleen Cochran adjusts a self-contained breathing apparatus in an engine in 2009. Cochran took over the county’s SCBA program 18 years ago, maintaining the systems for all of Bartow’s firefighters. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News, File
Former Bartow County Fire Chief James Bailey recalls clearly the day Colleen Cochran took the physical agility test as part of the department’s hiring process.

It was 1989. Cochran, who stands 5 feet 2 inches and weighs just over 100 pounds, was the only female taking the test.

Bailey said the men applying alongside Cochran hid and watched as she dragged a 100-pound dummy 50 feet.

“When she got to the end, she turned around and said, ‘Do you want me to bring it back?’” Bailey said.

She got the job.

Cochran, who will retire Friday after 23 years with BCFD, said her desire to join the fire service came from watching her uncles, who were firefighters in Douglas County.

It was not a quick process. Cochran applied for years with both Cartersville Fire Department and BCFD before the county hired her.

“I did apply with the city first and then the county,” she said. “After the county hired me, the city kept trying to hire me for three or four years after that. I told them I was staying with the county because the county gave me a chance.”

For Bailey, the decision to hire Cochran came down to her abilities.

“When we were interviewing for some open positions — I was assistant chief at the time working with the training officer — and the only thing we were looking for were the best, most qualified candidates. And she was one of the most qualified candidates we had at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t because of gender or anything else; she was just the best qualified candidate we were looking for.”

Cochran, 50, said her first few years with the department were not easy.

“My first two years in the department I caught hell. I truly did. I had to prove that I could do the job,” she said. “I did my job and then some, and all the guys had to see that I could pull my weight and do my part. After I did that, then I was one of them but it took a lot of proving.”

Although she may have been treated differently because of her gender, Cochran said she never thought of complaining.

“No, discrimination never crossed my mind because, you know, hey, I was going to prove to them and everybody else that I could do my job and do it just as good as they could regardless. Like I said, it took a couple years,” she said. “We have had a lot of good times; we’ve pulled a lot of jokes on each other in the past. I wouldn’t take anything for it really. I’ve been taped to a few poles in my time.”

Cochran’s mother, Polly, said her daughter’s strength and “go-getter” personality helped her succeed.

“She’s just a firecracker, she’s a firefighter,” Polly Cochran said. “She never expected to be treated any different, and whatever she made, she made it on her own.

“She never went crying to [her superiors] … She was tough, strong. If she hadn’t been, she couldn’t have gone through what she’s been through in her lifetime.”

Cochran, who grew up on a farm, was a “very active” child who always wanted to help people, her mother said.

“All my kids were sweet but she was the baby and she was just right with me all the time. … As a child she was just the sweetest thing,” Polly Cochran said. “… She’s just willing to do anything for anybody.”

And Cochran did help — she paved the way for women in the county’s fire department.

“I think I’ve helped. Yeah, I do,” she said. “I think that each individual does that themselves in their own way. The first female? Sure that helped break the barriers and to prove that females can do the job just as well as males can.”

BCFD Sgt. Lisa Hahn, one of the handful of women now in the county’s ranks, agreed.

“I think the biggest thing [she did for women in the department] is probably she opened their eyes that it’s not so bad having females in the department. She kind of taught them it’s OK to have us around,” Hahn said. “Coming in when she did too, she came in early on … If someone came in today being the first female, it still wouldn’t be as trying, I guess, as it was for her back then when she came in.”

Cochran worked her way through the department, becoming the first female sergeant in 1991 and the county’s only female captain to date in 1999.

Bailey said Cochran’s hard work and dedication propelled her through the ranks of the fire service.

“She, like all firefighters that I’ve known, she was dedicated to her job. She came in as a young firefighter, worked hard, played hard and learned the profession from the ground up, and as she learned and worked hard, she was promoted through the ranks,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of her because, again, firefighting has always been a male-dominated profession and she came in and she worked hard enough to overcome those obstacles and still get the job done.”

Now, she said, her advice to other women in the department is to do the same.

“The one thing [I tell them] is learn your job, know your job … that way the other firefighters will not question you and, in return, you earn their respect,” Cochran said. “If they know you know what you are doing, it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female …, and you don’t ask them to do anything that you haven’t already done and they know you can do it. Therefore, they don’t question you, they don’t question your authority or ‘Hey, I wonder if she can do that.’ They’ve already seen that happen.”

Calling her one of the “most patient individuals you could have teaching you,” Hahn said Cochran stressed treating others the way you would like to be treated and remembering where you came from.

“She also said you don’t expect any special favors by being female,” Hahn said. “You’re being allowed to be in their world, so it’s up to you to fit in. You’ll have to prove yourself … but you know that’s one of the prices we have to pay to step into something that really didn’t have a place for you in the beginning.”

Cochran, who is an emergency medical technician and HAZMAT tech, became director of the county’s fire safety education program 20 years ago. She was named Georgia State Firefighter’s Association Fire Safety Educator of the Year in August and the Elks Lodge Public Safety Officer of the Year in 2000. She was named Bartow County’s Firefighter of the Year in 2005.

In addition to fire safety education, she acquired the department’s self-contained breathing apparatus program 18 years ago. Under her direction, each county firefighter’s breathing system from mask to air tank is checked and maintained, which could mean the difference between life and death in a fire.

“She took the fire safety education from nothing to where it is today,” Hahn said. “We are all made to go through that class now where we can be a little bit of help to her. This county is huge. It has a lot of schools, elderly people. …

“She’s spent her whole career doing that, not to mention the fact that she takes care of our SCBAs, which is our lifeline. She didn’t take any of that lightly. Just like she does everything else, if she’s going to do it she’s going to do it 110 percent. Period. It’s just how she is, even if it’s crocheting.”

For her dedication shown to the department, a retirement reception will be held for Cochran Thursday from 1 to 3 p.m. at BCFD Station 1 on Ga. State Route 20. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP by Monday to 770-387-5151.

Saying she wouldn’t take anything for the past 23 years, Cochran recalled a comment from Bailey after he was named fire chief that summed up her experience.

“The one comment I can remember when Chief Bailey made chief …, he said, ‘Girl, I never worried about you.’ He said, ‘I knew you could hold your own.’”

And hold her own she has. When asked what she would say to Cochran, Hahn said simply, “Thank you.”

“What can you say to someone who’s done pretty much everything for you? ... She is one of the backbones of this department. There’s not too many left.”

Bailey said only time will tell exactly how Cochran impacted the department.

“There’s no way to measure how much this department has benefited from her abilities and her willingness to step out and do what needs to be done. If there’s a job to be done, she’s made sure that she was available, that she took part and did the best she could,” he said. “As bad as she’s going miss it, you don’t realize how bad you’re going to miss it until she’s not there to do it.

“Most of all [we’ll miss] the friendship. Those of us who have known and loved her, she’s as good a friend as you could have.”