Firefighter and paramedic Gayle Thomas is a real life action hero, one of those rare risk takers who keep their cool under pressure and venture where others fear to tread.
Whether it be navigating an obstacle course with dangling 10,000 volt electrically charged wires, jumping into a pit of ice water or rendering emergency first aid to a loved one attacked by a sting ray, she gives adventure loving a whole new meaning.
This month the Alameda resident will become only the second female captain in the history of the and will take over the role of Emergency Medical Services Captain.
Thomas competed with 17 other firefighters (all male) to win the promotion."All of them," she said, "are incredibly competent and would make great captains themselves."
She was put through an eight-hour assessment and, after the field was narrowed down to three candidates, she was named captain by Chief Michael D’Orazi.
As Emergency Services Captain she will be heavily involved in the department’s new Basic Life Support Ambulance Service pilot program which begins in July. (The Alameda Fire Department will provide non-emergency transportation for individuals needing an ambulance to transport them to care facilities or hospitals. The program was approved by the Alameda City Council and it is hoped it will not only provide a needed service for residents but also keep money spent on such transfers here in Alameda. Part-time emergency medical technicians are being hired as part of the program, so the city’s firefighting force will not be impacted.)
Blazing trails for women is nothing new to firefighter
Thomas began her firefighting career in Washington State where she was raised. While working on an ambulance crew a coworker encouraged her to apply to become a firefighter. She had always been an athlete, engaging in crew and rowing at the University of Washington and at 5-foot-11 she thought she might have what it takes to do the physically demanding job.
She ultimately achieved her goal of becoming a firefighter and worked eight years for the Tacoma Fire Department on an engine with an all-woman crew that was ranked as one of the top 100 busiest engine companies in the nation.
“It was a coincidence that we had an all female engine crew,” said Thomas, “and the first year we kept it kind of quiet. Later when a female fire chief was hired to head the department the publicity generated by her hire blew our cover and our crew was thrust in the media spotlight.”
Thomas said she doesn't mind being a bit of a novelty. She acknowledges she secretly delights in battling a fire completely incognito (other than having her last name displayed on her uniform) and the surprise her gender elicits in bystanders when she pulls off her headgear to reveal she is a woman.
“Inevitably,” she said, “when I take off my mask and helmet somebody does a double-take when they realize a woman just fought that blaze.”
Joining Alameda Fire Department
Thomas moved south to Alameda 10 years ago when she joined the AFD. “I fell in love with the town the moment I drove through the tube to my first fire department interview,” she said. Now proud to call herself a “Westender," Thomas said it is extremely gratifying to serve the city in which she lives.
“I love the action. I love the fact every day brings something new and the excitement of it all,” she said.
She also fell in love with a fellow firefighter after coming to Alameda, Captain Mike Williams. The couple now have two children together, son Calin (age 5) and daughter Marley (age 3). “At the time we were the only people to have ever dated in the Alameda Fire Department, but today there is another couple in the department who met on the job and are now married."
A role model for young girls and committed to physical fitness
Thomas speaks at Girls Inc. of the Island City and other organizations to young women about non-traditional careers and says she tells them if you really want to do something you shouldn’t let anything stand in your way.
She admits becoming a firefighter was a challenge. There is a lot of competition for firefighter slots and you must have good math skills, mechanical aptitude and be very physically fit, she said.
To stay in shape Thomas works out 90-minutes each day when on duty, doing weight-lifting and other exercises. Off-duty she trains for and runs marathons.
She also participates each year in an endurance competition with other firefighters called the “Tough Mudder” held at various locales and involving many fire departments. Teams of 10 firefighters tackle a 12-mile obstacle course, dodging live wires, lifting logs, surviving frigid water and other similar challenges. Alameda firefighters, she said, did well in last year’s competition.
Football and adventure travel are her other passions
Thomas is a huge fan. She even was invited to have her picture emblazoned on one of their billboards (See the photo accompanying this article). She said she thinks her fellow firefighters may not even know about it and will likely be surprised by her billboard appearance.
When not following her beloved football team, Thomas is an ardent traveler. But, even off the job, she finds her paramedic and firefighting skills come in handy. She and her extended family just returned from a three-week trip to Mexico where her emergency medical skills became critically needed.
Williams, her significant other, was stung by a sting ray on his hand while they were vacationing in an area of Mexico with no cell phone coverage and over an hour away from any medical facility. With no way to call for nearby help and no time to spare, they ran to a caretaker's house. Using the iPad they had brought with them they were able to do an Internet search of how to treat a ray sting. (Apparently soaking the sting site in the hottest water you can stand for 90 minutes will deactivate the venom.)
It was a close call, but Williams is now fine and Thomas said it has not deterred them from wanting to embark on similar trips in the future.
AFD’s commitment to the community – Mojito Monday March 5
Thomas is eager to let the public know about an event happeining Monday and invite them to attend.
Alameda Firefighters have long been known for championing charitable causes. On Monday, March 5, they will once again be going above and beyond the call of duty when they hold a fundraiser for breast cancer research at from 5 to 8 p.m. Members of the department will serve as guest bartenders. Vice Mayor Rob Bonta and City Councilmember Lena Tam are among local officials who have already indicated they will be attending.
Thomas said during the month of October Alameda firefighters also wore bright pink shirts to observe Breast Cancer Awareness and this fundraiser is a continuation of those efforts.
March 8 ceremony at City Hall to mark her promotion
Later in the week, a “pinning” ceremony will take place March 8 at 3:30 p.m. at at which Thomas will formally receive her captain’s promotion. Other firefighters will also be formally promoted during the event, including new Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi. The public is welcome to attend.
Said Thomas of her promotion, “I am proud to be Alameda’s second female captain, but even prouder just to join those here who are officers of all ranks.”