Spotlight Iowa City: Making a mark on the fire department


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Growing up watching her mother volunteer as a paramedic, Tina McDermott knew she wanted a service-oriented job. She didn’t know that was firefighting until much later.

Now, as an Iowa City firefighter, the perks are many.

“I love that I work 10 24-hour shifts a month and that I get free sweat pants and T-shirts every year,” she said. “And the big red trucks. I’m kind of a kid when it comes to the trucks.”

McDermott joined the team when she 19 — something she said her coworkers must have had to adjust to.

“I thought I was mature then at 19, but I was not,” said McDermott, and she was acutely aware she was the same age as the daughters of some of her coworkers. “The poor Fire Department has had to watch me grow up.”

McDermott left Madison, Wis., to work in Iowa City in the middle of earning her associate’s degree in fire science from Madison Area Technical College. She later finished the degree at Kirkwood Community College.

And not yet into her career for even a decade, McDermott has already garnered some attention as the first woman in the Iowa City Fire Department to be promoted to lieutenant in February 2009.

Snagging an “Lt.” in front of her name was a lengthy and demanding process, including written and tactical tests.

After, McDermott went on a list, which in turn needs approval by the city’s Civil Service Commission. The fire chief can then make his or her choices from that list.

As one of those select few, McDermott, is in charge of a three-person engine company at Station 2, which includes firefighter Dan Reade.

“She is adamant about getting things done on time and making sure they’re done right,” he said.

Despite the tough job, McDermott keeps it lighthearted at times.

She has the men put a dollar into a jar any time they hit a curb or squeal the radio inside the truck. That money becomes the pizza fund.

The team works together for 24-hour shifts, and during that time, Reade said, the firefighters learn a lot about each other.

“It’s like your second family,” he said.

McDermott has even been known to give advice when Reade and firefighter Adam Riss buy Valentine’s Day gifts.

‘We’re always asking her for advice about what we should get our wives for their birthdays or Valentine’s Day,” Reade said.

McDermott also had to adjust to working with mostly men when she began, which included (at one point) negotiating around a single bathroom. However, she is not the first person to do this.

Janet Vest, a firefighter of 19 years in North Liberty and Iowa City, knows McDermott professionally. She’s someone McDermott said she has gone to for advice.

After all, Vest said she’s dealt with the gender dynamics of a firehouse — she remembered earning the trust of her male coworkers years ago.

“I had to let them know I wasn’t there to cause politics,” Vest said. “I had to prove myself like any other firefighter.”

Vest said McDermott is conscientious and a hard worker.

“I think she does her job well,” Vest said.

For McDermott, the excitement of helping people and the relationships with her coworkers make her love firefighting.

“Once you get into it, you’re kind of hooked,” she said.

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