Fifteen years ago, Nicole Witherell decided to join the Lowell Area Fire Department after her husband Shannon – who is the current fire chief – piqued her interest.
“I quickly realized that his passion was in the fire service,” she says. As a paramedic with Rockford Ambulance at the time, she recognized that her medical experience could be an asset to the department. Plus, she wanted to prove the naysayers wrong.
“When I expressed my interest in joining the department, many people doubted my ability,” Witherell explains. At that time, it was relatively uncommon to have women on the force, but Witherell wasn’t deterred by those who thought firefighting was best left to the men. She notes, “It was this doubt that fueled my fire and pushed me to try harder and show others that women can definitely be firefighters.”
Now, after a rewarding career with the department, Witherell is getting ready to step down from firefighting to focus on other pursuits. However, she leaves with a full heart and memories to last a lifetime.
Answering Calls for Help
Between 21 years of experience in emergency medical services and 15 years on the fire department, Witherell has been on calls that are notable for a variety of reasons.
There was the time that half the department contracted poison ivy while trying to get a person out of a vehicle that had rolled over. There was the tremendous fire that destroyed the Michigan Wire facility in 2007. And Witherell has been present while some people took their last breaths and others were born and took their first.
Witherell and her husband have five children, ranging in ages from 6 to 24, and even pregnancy couldn’t stop her from responding to a call for help. “I remember being nine months pregnant lying down to insert an airway in an unconscious patient,” she recalls.
One of the challenges of firefighting, Witherell explains, is that it is so much more than firefighting. “We respond to medical emergencies as well as fires, accidents and other types of calls,” she says. Sometimes, those calls have tragic outcomes, and it is especially hard when an emergency involves a child. “But the care, concern, support and understanding from other members of the department really helps us to be able to deal with the stress.”
Being Part of the Brotherhood
Often referred to as a Brotherhood, the family atmosphere of the Lowell Area Fire Department is what Witherell has enjoyed the most during her time as a firefighter. That camaraderie extends beyond time in the fire station too.
The members of the fire department seem to always be willing to help one another. They help each other on home projects, visit one another in the hospital and care for each other kids, when needed. “Their families have become our families,” according to Witherell.
That tight-knit community may be a product of the amount of time and commitment that go into being a firefighter. There is a 6-month fire school and another 6 month for medical training. Then, the entire department gets together twice a month on a Saturday morning to hone their skills.
Witherell says, “My favorite quote about training is, ‘We don’t train to get it right; we train until we can’t get it wrong.’”
While firefighters spend a lot of time together, they don’t live at the fire station. Witherell says that’s a common misconception. Instead, with the exception of the chief, all firefighters are paid on-call workers who generally hold down full-time jobs outside of their firefighting work.
Another common misconception is that all fire stations have a dog. That’s not the case in Lowell, although Witherell says it might be a nice addition: “We do not have a station dog- although we should!”
What’s Next for Veteran Firefighter
The decision to leave the department wasn’t easy, but Witherell says the time is right.
While her oldest children have moved away from home, the younger ones are now at a point where they have places they want to be and activities they want to do. Retiring from the Lowell Area Fire Department will give Witherell the time to do those things while still working her day job as a 911 dispatcher for the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
“What makes this decision easier is that I’ll still be around as my fire family are my friends and we’ll continue to do life together,” she says. As the chief’s wife, Witherell will undoubtedly be a regular face at department functions, and she plans to help out with fundraising events and other activities.
After 15 years with the department, Witherell is grateful for the memories and friendships she’s made. Looking to the future, she anticipates that this is not the end of her association with the Lowell Area Fire Department. It’s just the start of a new chapter.