The first full-time, paid female firefighter in Nebraska is calling it a career.
Carolyn “Kelly” Williams, whose professional status began in 1986, has been proud to serve as an emergency “first responder,” often on rescue squads. But she thought she would retire quietly, with no fanfare.
“I just wanted to slide out and say I’m retired,” she said. “But this is quite nice.”
Omaha Fire Chief Mike McDonnell presented Kelly with a retirement badge at a luncheon last week, and today Mayor Jim Suttle is recognizing her in a ceremony at City Hall — coincidentally, the day on which the City Council votes on a new contract with the firefighters union.
She is not an “early-out” retiree. On the contrary, last Friday, Kelly turned 66.
She has fought house fires and responded as a rescue-squad paramedic to heart attacks, childbirths, injuries, illnesses, auto accidents, burns, smoke inhalations, shootings, drownings and more. Sometimes the victims are scared; sometimes they cannot be helped.
“Every day I worked, there was something. I’ve never not enjoyed going to work. I’ve delivered babies, which are some of the most rewarding things I’ve done.”
While working a part-time second job as a paramedic at a hospital in the 1990s, she even “caught” a baby. A breathless man had arrived at the emergency room saying his wife was in a parked taxi about to have her seventh child.
Kelly was helping the woman move from the cab to a wheelchair when the woman’s water broke and out came the baby — which Kelly grabbed before the newborn hit the ground. Later, colleagues laughed and kidded her: “Nice catch!”
She grew up in Early, Iowa, as Carolyn Carver and married Roger Williams, who became a police officer for Bellevue, Millard and Omaha.
She had worked as a clerk and a secretary, and was attending a roller-skating party when a skater fell and broke an ankle. Kelly felt helpless, and admired the rescuers.
In 1983, she decided to train and become a volunteer firefighter. Three years later, at age 39, she became a full-timer with the old Millard Suburban Fire District.
All through her career, she didn’t know she was the first woman in Nebraska to serve in a full-time, paid firefighter position. Neither did the Omaha chief, but he said researchers have verified that she was the pioneer when she joined the old Millard fire district 26 years ago.
That district merged with the Omaha Fire Department on Jan. 1, 1998, and 40 professionals became part of the Omaha department. Kelly was the only woman in that group.
Today, 33 women serve in the 633-member Omaha Fire Department, including Battalion Chiefs Kathy Brenner and Kathleen Bossman. (The first woman to achieve that rank in Omaha was Elisa Havranek in 2004.)
The first female firefighters to graduate from training and join the Omaha department did so on Oct. 23, 1987, a year after Kelly Williams started full-time on the Millard Suburban force.
She said her career has required teamwork, and she is grateful for her colleagues. Chief McDonnell said she has done a great job.
“Kelly has really just helped a lot of people,” he said. “We thought we should recognize her for the service she has given to her community over the years and for kind of plowing the ground for other women who wanted to join the profession.”
Kelly and her husband raised three children and have four grandchildren. He died in 2008.
She officially retires on Dec. 31, after exactly 15 years with the Omaha Fire Department, and plans to spend more time enjoying her family, quilting and traveling.
Responding calmly to emergencies that would rattle most people has just been part of the job for Kelly and her colleagues.
“You’ve had your training, and it just kicks in,” she said. “I’ve always thought, ‘We didn’t create this problem, but we’re here to help.’”
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