City’s first female firefighter retires

Published 9:39 pm Monday, July 31, 2017

It took a while for Martina Campbell to prove herself as the first female firefighter in the Suffolk fire department. But once she did, she paved the way for others.

“Being the first female was very challenging,” said Campbell, who joined the fire department in July 1986. “It kind of rocked the boat a little bit.”

Monday was her last official day in the fire department. Campbell, 53, is retiring about 31 years after her hiring originally rocked the boat. Not only was she the first female firefighter, she has been only one of two black female firefighters ever in the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue. The other didn’t stay very long before moving on to another occupation.

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When Campbell was a young girl in New York, her family’s home caught on fire. Nobody was injured, but there was a lot of damage to the house. Watching the firefighters work gave Campbell a new passion.

“I saw what they did, and I was impressed,” she said.

Martina Campbell, right, helps fight a fire on the roof of a Franklin Street home on June 24, 2009. She was the first female firefighter in the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue.

Her family moved here when she was 15, and Campbell graduated from John Yeates High School in 1981. She worked at Smithfield Packing for a few years until she joined the Suffolk Fire Department.

When she was first hired, Campbell said, her male colleagues were worried.

“You’re with a bunch of men that are worried they will have to watch out for you,” she said. She learned many years later than some firefighters’ wives had told their husbands not to work the same shift as Campbell, lest they get themselves killed trying to look out for her.

“I had to prove myself,” Campbell said. “Anytime you’re the first of anything, you have to prove yourself.”

Campbell recalled the turning point being a fire that broke out among a pile of 25-pound bags of peanut hulls. The firefighters soaked the bags and then realized they couldn’t get to the fire that way, so they had to pull the now-waterlogged bags out of the building.

“Those 25-pound bags became 50-pound bags,” Campbell said. “I just tossed it over my shoulder and kept on going. From that day on it was like, ‘We don’t have to worry about Tina.’”

She remembered one of her scariest moments as a fire at a local coffee roastery. The building was very smoky, and she hadn’t been a firefighter for very long. She ended up walking into a wall and then turning around and tripping over the fire hose.

“Then I remembered, follow the fire hose out,” she said. “That was to me personally one of the scariest moments, but I didn’t panic.”

Campbell said the decision to retire was hard, but it was a decision that had to be made.

“It’s time for the young people to come in and hold the torch, so to speak,” she said.

She hopes she has helped pave the way for other black women, and women in general, in the fire department.

“I made it easier for them to be accepted,” she said. But she added, “It’s a male-dominated job. You still have to prove yourself. You have to have no fear. I’m not saying be stupid – you have to have some sense, and you have to be physically fit.”

In retirement, Campbell will pursue another pastime at which firefighters are known to be talented: culinary arts.

She’s attending Stratford University and aims to receive degrees in culinary arts as well as baking and pastries. She’s already known around the fire service for her macaroni and cheese, ribs and stuffed Cornish hens.