ELKHART – After 26 years as a firefighter, Capt. Allyson Womack decided it was time to walk away from something she loves while she still could.
Womack is retiring after 21 years with the Elkhart Fire Department and time as a volunteer and fulltime firefighter with Concord Township before that. The first woman to retire from active service with Elkhart, she said it's bittersweet to leave behind the only thing she wanted to do ever since she was a little girl, watching her parents work as volunteer firefighters in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I'm going out the way I want to go out, but it was my dream job," the 52-year-old Station 3 captain said Friday, shortly before the traditional spaghetti dinner given in honor of retiring Elkhart firefighters. "I never wanted to be anything else."
An injury that herniated her back last year caused her to begin considering retirement. She hopes to go on to work in the Red Cross, preferably something that keeps her out in the field rather than stuck in a lab, and has big plans for other adventures too.
"I want to do other things – I want to backpack in Africa, I want jump out of an airplane – and if I stay here, I risk that," she said.
'One of the guys'
Womack moved to Indiana in 1989, and worked at Elkhart General Hospital and with ADEC before training to be an EMT and volunteering with Concord. She came to Elkhart Fire at the same time as three other women and four men, and leaves as one of five women now in the department.
She knew breaking into an especially male-dominated field would mean adapting – not just things like using your legs instead of your arms when strength is required, but also having the right mindset. She said the guys were inviting on their part, and accepted her like family within a couple months.
"You have to have the right personality, it's a man's world," she said. "I was one of the guys."
It also means sharing a particular sense of humor needed to deal with the stress of the job and the occassional tragedy. She noted that her scrapbook, brought out for people to flip through during her reitrement party, is filled with funeral cards in addition to newspaper clippings tracking her career.
"I'll miss going out on runs, being a medic, sometimes saving lives. Sometimes not," she said. "And I'll miss the guys, this is family."
'By the book'
She singled out her engine driver, Ron Mishler, who she said she relied on to make sure she's ready to go out on a call at a moment's notice. She described him as "quirky" but said he's a great firefighter.
Mishler said he'll miss her evenhanded temperament, which he described as regimented, no matter what was happening on the job or at home. It's an asset he admitted he and many of the other guys don't always have.
"She treated everybody the same and expected the same thing out of everybody every day," he said. "She would always do it by the book."
Her husband, Paul Womack, is also a firefighter, though she noted she's three months his senior. He's currently captain of Station 5.
She said she'll also miss having her grandchildren visit the station, like her own two daughters and son did while they were growing up. She said doesn't know if any of them plan to become firefighters, but she'd encourage any little girl considering the career to go for it.
"Do it," she said. "That's all you got to do, is do it."