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Though small in stature, a female firefighter is leaving a larger-than-life legacy as she prepares to retire from a Contra Costa County fire agency.
When Janet Brandi hangs up her turnout gear March 29, not only will she conclude a 26-year career in the fire service, but will become the first female firefighter to retire in the history of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District (MOFD).
After responding to approximately 7,500 emergency calls, Brandi, 52, departs with mixed emotions.
“I love coming to work,” she said. “We have a great crew, and the people in the community love us. I’m happy and sad at the same time.”
In the early 1990s, fire academy recruits stopped at the East Bay sports bar where Brandi worked. She relished the excitement the recruits brought from their job, and as Brandi got to know the academy instructor, she decided to follow his career advice and become a firefighter herself.
So, Brandi worked out. She took classes. She applied for fire service jobs. She tested for a position with a fire agency. But she failed, because she didn’t meet the physical requirements.
Brandi refused to accept defeat, however.
“I hired a personal trainer and I dug in,” she said. “I went from failing to competitive bodybuilding.”
The extra work paid off, and Brandi landed a job with the Richmond Fire Department. After a short stint there, she moved to the Orinda Fire District in 1997, the year it merged into the Moraga-Orinda Fire District.
Willis Lamm, one of Brandi’s first MOFD captains, acknowledged some of the early difficulties she experienced.
“Having a woman in the fire house was a real cultural adjustment,” Lamm said. “It was a tweak to the social brotherhood, and it was an annoyance to some of the old timers.”
What disturbed Brandi the most was the abrupt silence that took hold the minute she walked by a group of her male peers.
“I felt the silence was directed at me. How could I not?” Brandi said. “Eventually they started to realize that I wasn’t taking notes. That I was OK.”
The fire service remains a tough profession for women to enter. According to industry statistics, women make up 20 percent of the U.S. armed forces and 12 percent of the country’s law enforcement officers, but the National Fire Prevention Association reported last year that a mere 4 percent of career firefighters are women.
But Brandi sees progress.
“We’ve evolved,” she said. “It’s changed from a battle to a realization that we bring something to the table.”
MOFD Capt. Jacob Airola concurred.
“Having women on our crews makes us not just diverse in who we are but in the ability to preserve dignity,” he said. “It allows us to provide security, trust and overall better care.”
Brandi was promoted to engineer in 2006, shortly after MOFD firefighter-paramedic Katy Himsl graduated from high school. “It was inspirational to see Janet drive the fire engine,” Himsl said. “She set high standards for me, and she’s been my role model.”
The muscles in her 5-foot-4 frame are toned and controlled; Brandi said she’s in as good shape now as when she started in Richmond.
“Fitness is essential in our business, and the commitment Janet puts to her level of fitness is inspiring to me,” Airola said. “She sets standards for all people — not just women — to push themselves and to work hard.”
What Brandi cherishes about her pending retirement is that she can spend more quality time with her 10-year-old daughter, Adeline. Along with their dog, Cinder, they plan a three-state road trip before Brandi applies to volunteer with a search and rescue team.
“I can think of only a handful of people in our business who have retired on their own terms,” Airola said.
Indeed, Brandi becomes the first female MOFD firefighter to depart having accumulated the required 20 years of service for her age — and not because of disability, termination or any other outside factor.
Brandi directs a clear message to women who want to join her profession.
“You can,” she said, “especially now. There are no barriers anymore, other than the ones you place on yourself.”
MOFD Chief Dave Winnacker congratulated Brandi on the completion of her “trailblazing career,” as did Vince Wells, president of Local 1230, United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County, who trained with Brandi at a 1997 fire academy.
“I always knew Janet would be successful in her fire service career and wish her well on a job well done. She will be missed by her fellow brothers and sisters from the MOFD,” Wells said.
Lamm saluted Brandi with one of the highest compliments that can be paid to firefighters, who rely on one another during extremely stressful circumstances. Early in Brandi’s career, she partnered with Lamm to search for a trapped victim inside a burning Moraga structure.
“No matter how difficult the situation, you could always count on Janet,” Lamm said.