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TWINSBURG -- For a year or so after she was hired in 1979 as the first female firefighter in the Twinsburg Fire Department, Betty Tomko sat on one side of the room during department meetings, and the men sat on the other.
The 20 to 25 volunteer firefighters accepted Tomko as part of the team, she said, extending to her the same strong camaraderie found in fire departments past and present.
But there was also the sense that she was being coddled, perhaps overprotected, when all she wanted was to be in the field with her colleagues, fighting fires.
"I was there to do a job," said Tomko, now 77 and splitting her time between a Bel Mawr residence in Twinsburg and a home in St. Augustine, Fla. "They were very protective of me, and I appreciated not getting hurt. But I was not hired to be a firefighter in name only."
Sooner than later, the smart and tenacious 39-year-old from Wytheville, Va., gained acceptance in the department, led at the time by Fire Chief Bud Watson.
"It was after I went on my first call in Twinsburg," Tomko said. "I remember returning from the call and Bud Watson telling me, 'You're going to be alright.'"
Tomko got her first taste of firefighting a year earlier, in 1978, when she was hired as the third female firefighter in Aurora. She then fielded dispatching calls from her husband, Andy, who owned a private paramedic service in the Twinsburg and Aurora areas (there were no municipal paramedic vehicles or equipment at the time).
"I really wanted to be out there doing what they were doing," Tomko said. "I knew Bud Watson, and I persuaded him to let me take the firefighters' exam. I knew what I was getting into ... I just kept telling him, 'At least give me a chance!'"
Tomko got that chance in Twinsburg, becoming a member of the volunteer department. But it was the field practicals that would cement her reputation as a firefighter whose gender no long mattered.
She impressed male colleagues by driving the department's two response trucks at least once per week for training, and she rappelled from an 85-foot ladder during disaster training in Sagamore Hills. She delivered babies in the field, and could be counted on during emergencies, such as a truck accident that occurred on Interstate 480 in the early 1980s.
The 18-wheeler that was carrying thousands of styrofoam cups turned over and caught fire, and toxic black smoke billowed into the air. Tomko and several other firefighters fought the truck fire and were treated for breathing problems and released.
She even participated in a firefighter's challenge in 1980 with Aurora as a part of the Twinsburg tug-of-war team.
"We won, too," she said. "I think they were impressed with me."
One of the city's most famous fires occurred in the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 1980, at the Brownberry Ovens plant on Highland Road, in what has come to be known as the "Brownberry Ovens Fire."
As former Fire Chief Dan Simecek said, "Every fireman at one time or another gets a feeling that the next call is going to be the fire that he will not be able to stop."
Tomko responded on the first shift of the fire, which ultimately consumed a portion of the 115,000-square-foot, 1-story bread factory, working between 14 and 15 hours on that first shift. The Cleveland press arrived on scene, spoke with Tomko and reported in the next day's paper that Tomko was a pioneering female firefighter "who has fought more than 500 fires."
"We didn't fight 500 fires in five years," Tomko said. "I have no idea where that came from. I caught some grief, and a couple police officers asked for my autograph later that day, all in good fun."
As the only female firefighter on scene at the Brownberry Ovens blaze, Tomko was working with Twinsburg Firefighter Bob Wilson on a hose line when a tank of molten lard blew out a wall -- and covered both Tomko and Wilson. The firefighters were not injured, but the hose they were operating got away from them and began flailing about uncontrollably.
The two got the hose line corralled, transferred the work to two other firefighters and returned to the fire station to hose themselves off.
"Then it was straight back to the fire," Tomko said.
Husband Andy Tomko, now the president of the Twinsburg Historical Society, said he supported his wife's perseverance in what was -- and still often is -- a male-dominated industry.
"I backed her 100 percent," Andy Tomko said. "And I'd do it again."
During her nearly six-year career in Twinsburg from 1979 through 1985, Tomko would go on to become the first female fire inspector in the city, continuing her education with degrees from the Ohio Fire Academy in Reynoldsburg in fire inspection and arson training.
Tomko has served as an inspiration to two other female firefighters (and, coincidentally, fire inspectors) in Twinsburg, as well: the recently retired Lynn Racine and current Lt. Gina DeVito-Staub.
"[Tomko] rocks," said DeVito-Staub, a graduate of the National Fire Academy, adjunct faculty member at the University of Akron and the lone female firefighter currently in the Twinsburg Fire Department. "She paved the way for us. We have come a long way ... and I'm extremely appreciative of her service."
DeVito-Staub said there is still work to be done.
"There are lots of opinions out there about the role of women in fire service," she said. "Fire service has traditionally not been a place for women. But there is a 'her' in 'brotherhood,' and nowhere is that more evident than in Twinsburg. I have lots of big brothers and little brothers here, and Twinsburg has been fantastic ... there are some brilliant people in this department."
Tomko has remained in touch with Racine and DeVito-Staub throughout the years, and returned the pioneering praise to the two younger firefighters.
"These two made all women proud in the ways they have conducted themselves and through the hard work they have put in," Tomko said.
Tomko added that her working relationships at the Twinsburg Fire Department have transitioned to lifelong friendships, as she, her husband and the former Fire Chief Dan Simecek still gather for cards on a regular basis.
"It was tough leaving the department," Tomko said. "The community was always appreciative of our efforts. The work meant so much to me, that we were entrusted to keep people safe."
After retiring from the Twinsburg Fire Department, Tomko worked at Grande Village Retirement Community in Twinsburg for three years and traveled extensively with her husband. She became chief financial officer of the Tomkos' company, ABET MGT., Inc., which schedules computer technicians for field repairs.
She remains active with the Twinsburg Historical Society, and says the 200-year-old community has never lost its small-town feel.
"We are very lucky here in Twinsburg that we still have that community feeling, a smaller town that still cares," she said. "And like I've done everything else in life, I want to be in the middle of all the action."