Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 3, Page 16
Spring 1992
Alumni Profile; Professional firefighter goes for the glow

     You always know what you'll be doing at a fire long before you
get there. I usually drive the fire engine and hook up all the water
and the hoses," says Sylvia Wasylyk, Delaware '79, a professional
      But when the Hartsville (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Company took a call
early in the morning on New Year's Day, someone else jumped into the
driver's seat. Wasylyk took the jump seat-the "nozzle seat."
     "That meant when we got to the fire, I would be the first one to
go into the burning building," she recalls.
     "When we arrived, we didn't see any smoke, but there was a ring
of fire around the front door of this split-level home. We decided to
go in the back way.
     "As we opened the door, smoke billowed out. I started to crawl
in, wearing 40 pounds of equipment and dragging the hose with me. Keep
in mind, I had never been in the house before. The smoke is so thick,
I can't see a thing. I can't even see the floor I'm crawling on. Right
away, I bump into something. It turned out to be the dining room
table. I went to my left, still crawling and dragging the hose. Boom!
I ran into a wall. I can hear the fire. I can hear glass breaking but
I don't know where I am. I can't feel the heat because of the
protective clothing.
     "I reach out and realize I've run into a curio cabinet. All sorts
of little things start falling out and breaking. I remember thinking,
'I hope these aren't Hummels-something expensive that someone has
spent a lifetime collecting.
     "The guy behinds me yells, 'Look for the glow,' and we go on
looking for the fire. By now, most of the windows in the house are
broken out, and the smoke is clearing a little. I can see the glow,
but suddenly there's no more floor. As it turns out, it was a landing,
but at the time I didn't know if the floor had burned away or what had
     "We open up the nozzle and pour water on the glow. The water is
all over the floor. The smoke has lifted, but now we have to do the
worst part of any firefighter's job-look for bodies.
     "I took the hose upstairs to cover another firefighter. He pushes
open a bedroom door and it won't open all the way. Our hearts stop,
because we're afraid there is a body behind the door. It turned out to
be a mattress. What a relief.
     "Then, it's time for another crew to come in and look for hot
spots. As I'm leaving, all I can think is that this was someone's
home. Now, there is water damage, the ceilings are scorched and
blackened; heat and smoke have trashed the inside of the house; it
looks like the carpet was really nice; the wallpaper is curling off
and peeling. The only good news is that everyone got out alive.
     "It's only taken about 15 minutes, but I'm exhausted. I come out
of the house into 18 degree weather. I put my helmet down, and a few
minutes later, it is covered with ice. My gloves freeze in the
position they were in when I took them off.
     "I wasn't afraid, at least not for my life, but I was scared that
I would mess up."
     Wasylyk was named firefighter of the year last year by her peers
at the Hartsville, Pa., Volunteer Fire Company. But, the award-winning
involvement wasn't enough for her.
     "The more I got involved, the more meaningful and the more
important the work became," she says. "I couldn't do the job casually
on a part-time, recreational basis."
     So, now, she's the first and only woman professional, civilian
firefighter at the Naval Air Station in Willow Grove, Pa., working 72
hours a week, while still staying active in the Hartsville company.
     Wasylyk, who resigned her commission in the U.S. Navy in 1990 to
become a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves, says "a belief
that what I'm doing is important" keeps her motivated. Although her
job as a civilian firefighter pays about half of what she earned as a
commissioned officer at the Naval Air Station, she says she is much
     Becoming a professional firefighter hasn't been easy. At her
first job at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, there were no provisions for
women firefighters. There was one communal bunkhouse and one large
shower room.
     She ended up sleeping in an unheated storeroom that was between
the television room and galley, and then she had to contend with a
union that said she was getting preferential treatment by having a
single room.
     The only solution to the communal shower was the addition of a
sign that she had to turn whenever she used it. Because the wait for a
shower was so long, she frequently took her showers back at home-a
40-minute commute.
     At Willow Grove, a relatively new facility, the bunkhouse is
divided into two-person rooms and there are shower facilities for both
     Because the Navy is very conscious of fire prevention, she hasn't
had too many fires to fight as a professional. Part of her job
includes conducting extinguisher inspections and testing alarms-all
the mundane, boring, routine things that are important.
     "If you're going to be professional, you have to know and expect
that part of the job is cleaning the station and equipment, and an
endless repetition of drills," she says.
     For the Hartsville honor, Wasylyk was chosen by a committee of
prior recipients. "They decide who's done the most for the company
overall," she says.
     And, as a volunteer, she's done a lot, rewriting the company's
procedures manual on the computer and becoming qualified to drive all
the apparatus, in addition to gaining certification as an instructor
at the Bucks County (Pa.) Emergency Service Training Center.
     "Firefighting has given a purpose to my life," she says. "It is
something I can do that will make a difference. As a single woman, I
can't create life. As a firefighter, I may be able to save a life.
What can be more important than that?"
                                        -Bill Clark, Delaware '82,
                                          with Beth Thomas