Women’s History Month: Atlanta firefighting duo blazing path for others

Credit: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department

Credit: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department

In a male-dominated profession, it’s uncommon to see a female firefighter pulling up to an active scene. It’s even more of a rarity to see two women arriving side by side.

But for those who’ve come across the command vehicle of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department’s 4th battalion within the past year, that is a natural occurrence.

Battalion Chief Terese Cummings and Command Tech Te’Quila Martin are the only female firefighting duo in the department. They are tied at the hip, with Cummings commanding the scene and Martin aiding her.

“Women are more than capable to do this job, and the fact that we’re two women doing it together is miraculous,” Martin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during Women’s History Month.

Fewer than 5% of career firefighters were women in 2020, according to the most recent statistics by the National Fire Protection Association. Cummings, 52, is in her 23rd year with Atlanta fire and roughly 21 months from retirement. She rose through the ranks from firefighter to lieutenant, arson investigator, captain and now the battalion chief covering six stations in southwest Atlanta. Martin, 33, has been with the department for about five years and has spent the past 10 months as a command tech alongside Cummings.

On the tactical side, Cummings’ role is to oversee and mitigate active situations that require multiple units in her territory, whether it’s a fire, a pileup on the interstate, a potential jumper, shootout or even a bomb threat. At a fire scene, she is the go-to person commanding an average of 20 to 25 people, basically all men. Her role includes knowing the location of fire crews inside and around a burning building, and ensuring their safety.

Martin assists Cummings in recalling where fire personnel were sent and takes care of residents impacted by the blaze. Other duties include driving the command vehicle to the scene and picking up anything the chief falls short on.

They both also have a myriad of administrative responsibilities.

“She is my right-hand person,” Cummings said. “She and I, we are the dynamic duo here at the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department.”

Credit: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department

Credit: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department

The two have developed a strong friendship despite their 19-year age difference. Martin sometimes pokes fun at the “old” music the chief listens to, or how she used to drive vehicles that, like in “The Flintstones,” could only be stopped by people’s feet. They spend practically 24 hours together every third day and have gotten close to each other’s families. Martin lives with her wife and three pets, while Cummings has a husband and two boys, ages 15 and 17.

“We look out for each other in a sense, too, because we’re women, and because we are Black women in this male-dominated environment,” Martin said. “There are situations where people of the same minority are competing against each other instead of helping each other out.”

Since Cummings joined the department, she’s had a point to prove. During her rookie days, she jumped through windows to let others know she belonged. The chief continued to cut holes in roofs, carry ladders and use saws and extrication tools until she was 51 years old.

Cummings admits it wasn’t easy as she advanced to become the only female battalion chief in Atlanta fire. She still remembers taking a class the department was offering years ago when the teacher gave everyone a chance to speak, but kept cutting her off. She feels many people still believe women don’t belong in the profession, and maybe even some of her colleagues.

At the end of the day, she just asks for respect.

“We put out fires, we rolled hose. We did everything that our male counterparts did,” Cummings said. “Something that we ask is to be treated fairly.”

Credit: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department

Credit: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department

The duo met at Camp Ignite, a fire department program that introduces teenage girls to the fire service. Martin said many girls are unaware they can even be firefighters. She recalls how surprised, excited and inspired people get when they see not one, but two women out in the field.

“They see someone that looks like them, that resembles them,” Martin said. “It’s like ‘I see myself in that woman, that firefighter, or that person. And feel I could do that, or I could do anything.’”