Lauren Phillips’ presence among the 19 Cleveland Fire Training Academy cadets sworn in as firefighters by Mayor Frank Jackson in January was historic.
The first female firefighter hired by the city since 1989, she’s one of only four now serving in the Division of Fire. Moreover, she continues a family tradition: Her paternal grandfather, Peter Marschall, was a Cleveland firefighter, as is her husband Todd Phillips.
But for the kidney donor, it was simply the latest in a life and career devoted to helping others.
“This is helping people to the extreme of emergency situations, responding to situations where it is somebody’s worst day,” says the 34-year-old Olmsted Township resident. “You can make that situation that little bit better.”
Firefighting piqued Phillips’ interest while commuting to her first job as an orthodontic assistant. Passing a fire station, she thought about how the position would combine her outgoing personality and physical prowess. “I just kind of decided that would be more interesting and more thrilling.”
After three months of EMT training and 240 hours of firefighting instruction at Cuyahoga Community College, she became a part-time firefighter for the village of North Randall in 2006. After 2 1/2 years, she left for a private ambulance service.
Phillips had taken the Cleveland Fire Training Academy’s entrance exam in 2009 but failed to score high enough among the hundreds of applicants to secure a spot in a class. Almost a decade later, her husband encouraged her to take it again.
“I thought, You know what? Maybe I could still do what I had always wanted to do,” she recalls.
While the city’s three other female firefighters — Lt. Justina Saxby, battalion chief Deberra Schroeder and Lt. Daphne Tyus — have spoken about the sexism they’ve experienced during their careers, Phillips says she hasn’t had negative experiences either at the academy or Collinwood’s Ladder 31, where she’s now stationed. Instructors and fellow cadets were “very open-minded” men who “waited until they could form their own opinion about me.”
The city’s safety forces have used social media and job fairs to recruit more women. Fire chief Angelo Calvillo also plans to implement weekend sessions to prepare female applicants for the grueling physical portion of the academy’s entrance exam.
“If we give them opportunities to practice, the pass ratio will be much higher,” he says.
Phillips realizes there are people who still believe women have no business fighting fires — no matter how they perform on the job.
“It’s not something I’m going to worry about,” she says. “I earned my spot here.”