Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department Celebrates Women’s History Month

As the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department approaches its 100th anniversary of incorporation, we would like to stop and reflect during Women’s History Month, on the contributions that women have made to our department throughout its history.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter designated March 2 through March 8 as Women’s History Week in an effort to recognize the accomplishments and contributions women have made throughout history. Congress took that one step further in 1987, by proclaiming March as National Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Inspiring Innovation through Imagination.” While this theme is primarily focused on innovations in science, technology and invention, it also includes creative leadership and service to the community.

In the early years of the department, firefighters spent many hours at the fire station responding to emergencies, working on equipment, and organizing fundraisers to build the department. Wives were also looking to get involved in the department to support their husbands. They came offering support at major incidents and by helping raise funds for much needed equipment and facilities to keep the community safe. In 1920, less than 4 months after the 19th amendment guaranteed all American women the right to vote, a group of women led by Mrs. Dora Quill, organized the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary. The Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary has the distinction of being the first fire department ladies auxiliary in the United States and the world. The charter members of the ladies auxiliary included: Irene Connor, Marie Davis, Clara Bryan, Freida Fankhouser, Minnie Nuthall, Alice Maguire, Evelyn Jacobs, Elenore Noel, Lulu Miller, Annie Pierce and Dora Quill. Irene Connor served as the organizations first president.

Throughout the ladies auxiliary’s 93 year history, their members have made significant contributions to the development of this department by helping raise funds for the purchase of fire apparatus, equipment, and the construction of firehouses. In addition, the ladies of the auxiliary have also helped with fire prevention events, making our community safer.

Auxiliary members have shown great leadership throughout the organization’s history. Mrs. Magdalene Schmidt helped organize fire department ladies auxiliaries throughout Prince George’s County and the State of Maryland. Mrs. Schmidt served as the president of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association’s – Ladies Auxiliary (PGCVFRA-LA) in 1946 and was president of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Maryland State Firemen’s Association (LA-MSFA) in 1949.

Past President, Treasurer and Chaplain Emeritus Mrs. Alice Long was named an honorary firefighter, a title never before bestowed by the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department, in recognition of her 70 years of active service and in celebration of her 100th birthday. Alice’s service to our department, the auxiliary, and to the community was unparalleled; with each new milestone of service new awards were created to recognize longevity of service because of Alice.

Both Mrs. Schmidt and Long have been inducted into the Prince George’s County fire service’s “Founders Circle” and their names inscribed on the granite marker stone for this department.

Mrs. Irene Connor served as president of the ladies auxiliary in 1936 and was the fifth president in the history of Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association’s – Ladies Auxiliary (PGCVFRA-LA) in 1935. She was also the first treasurer of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association’s – Ladies Auxiliary (PGCVFRA-LA) in 1930- 1932. Mrs. Connor was inducted into the PGCVFRA-LA Hall of Fame in 1994.

In 2007 Vivian Boyd, became president of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association’s – Ladies Auxiliary (PGCVFRA-LA). This was the first time in the history of the Association where the presidents of both the association and the auxiliary were from the same fire company. Vivian was inducted in the PGCVFRA-LA Hall of Fame in 1999. She is currently serving as the financial secretary of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Maryland State Firemen’s Association (LA-MSFA).

Members of the ladies auxiliary who have served as president for 10 or more years include: Magdalene Schmidt (23 years), Evelyn Mockabee (18 years), Mary Russell (11 years) and Irene Connor (10 years).

During World War II, many of the department’s men were called to serve their country. As the call to military service depleted our firefighting forces, members of the ladies auxiliary stepped up to the challenge and were trained to fight fires and operate the fire engines. These brave women accepted the challenge with the same passion and tenacity as “Rosie the Riveter.” We must never forget their courage.

Contributions by women have not been through the ladies auxiliary alone. Women have also served as members of the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department. While men have historically dominated the ranks of the fire service, that trend is changing. Today approximately 25% of the members serving as firefighters and emergency medical technicians in our department are women. As the department grows, this number continues to increase with new members from all walks of life, educational experiences, ethnicities, religious backgrounds and genders.

The department’s first female volunteer firefighter, Theresa Brady, joined in the early 1970’s and was an excellent firefighter. She also took the necessary training to become a fire engine driver and moved up the ranks to fire lieutenant, before leaving the department to raise a family.

Mary Russell, Margie Byrd and Jennifer McClelland have all served on the department’s Board of Directors in recent years. Mary Russell also served two terms as the department’s vice president. Today, EMS Captain Margie Byrd, EMS Lieutenant Rima Sifri and Fire Marshal Jennifer McClelland all serve in leadership roles. Captain Byrd manages our emergency medical training, while Lieutenant Sifri helps maintain our operational readiness. Fire Marshal McClelland organizes and promotes public fire safety education efforts; she also serves on the Board of Directors.

As you can see, women have a made a huge impact on the fire service in our community. We have only just begun to realize the many contributions that women have made and can only imagine what they will accomplish in the future. That same innovation and leadership of women in our past has provided a strong foundation and will inspire women of this department well into the future.

To all of the women that have served or who are currently serving in the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department and the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary, we thank you for your contributions to our department and to the Capitol Heights community. Our department and our community are richer because of your hard work.