Climbing the Ladder

Lynn Truitt becomes the first woman to lead firefighters in New Castle County. She’s already used to the hot seat.

Lynn Truitt wears many hats—and helmets—through her involvement in volunteer firefighting. As president of an association of fire companies in New Castle County, Truitt faces the challenges of budget cuts and operational changes. Photograph by Tom NutterAll seven bay doors are shut along the broad, brown-brick front of the Cranston Heights firehouse at Prices Corner. Steady afternoon traffic and a cold January wind stream by on Kirkwood Highway. Inside, a few firefighters sip coffee in the radio room. The longer the doors stay shut, the better.

One of the firefighters is Lynn Truitt, a full member of Cranston Heights Fire Company since 1994 and a past president. She has a ready smile and an easy way about her. Last December, Truitt became president of the New Castle County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, the first woman to hold such a post in the state. So the native Delawarean is not only a practitioner in a man’s world, but a leader as well.

“She deserves it,” says Warren Jones, president of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen’s Association. “Lynn is a great lady.”

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Truitt, who also serves as co-chair of Cranston’s board and a DVFA director, has taken the helm at NCCVFA during a time of fiscal cuts and operational change—the county’s call for 8 percent budget reductions included fire companies, while fire chiefs move toward standardized practices across the state. It will be a period of adjustment.

“I enjoy a challenge,” says Truitt. “I work well with anybody.”

That trait, plus her skills as an administrator—Truitt is chief operating officer of First State Surgery Center in Newark—impressed area fire-service leaders several years ago.

“She’s big on teamwork,” says Jim Barlow, 10-year president of Wilmington Manor Fire Company and one of the first people to spot Truitt’s potential. Early this decade, he and Christiana Fire Company’s Tom D’Alessandro, both soon to become NCCVFA officers at the time, recommended Truitt run for second vice president, the traditional first step toward the presidency.
“Lynn was progressive, dedicated to the fire service, and had a passion for volunteerism,” says Barlow, association president in 2004 and now one of three official advisors to Truitt. “We saw the things she accomplished at Cranston Heights, recruiting and retaining members. And there’s no limelight with her. She’s the type who doesn’t take credit.”

Overbooked with her day job and related activities, Truitt passed on the first couple of opportunities to run for NCCVFA office, but decided to go for it in December 2006. A veteran firefighter offered to manage her campaign, but his services were unnecessary. She ran unopposed for second vice president, a triumph she repeated for first vice president and for president.

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“That says a lot,” Barlow points out. “It’s basically an all-male organization.”

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That’s familiar territory for Truitt, who was the only granddaughter in her extended family as she was growing up near Wilmington. “We had to prove we could change tires before we could drive,” she recalls.

Still, she chose a conventional career path, taking nurse’s training, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in nursing at Wilmington University, then working as a registered nurse for 30 years, most of them with Christiana Care, where she became manager of the emergency department before moving to the operating room.

Meanwhile, she was drawn to her husband Mike’s involvement with Cranston Heights Fire Company (he’s now financial secretary and captain of the fire police), so she decided to “ride along on the ambulance.” A certified emergency medical technician, she nonetheless had to be trained in basic firefighting and rescue. In 1993 she joined and began to spend the required six hours a week at the station.

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Truitt’s interest in the business side of the fire company was a natural outgrowth of her work in health care, which was shifting toward administration. She became Cranston’s recording secretary, then its vice president before running against, and defeating, the sitting president to emerge as the company’s first female president in 1997.

“I didn’t think my first attempt would be successful,” she says. “I didn’t do it because I was a woman. I had some skills to offer.”

Those skills were tested early by an inherited muddle, as the company had to refund raffle money it had never collected in the first place. (A restaurant using Cranston’s nonprofit status for the purposes of a fundraiser had absconded with the cash.) But Truitt’s know-how and temperament quickly paid dividends, and it continued doing so during her half-dozen years as Cranston’s president. “It’s a business,” she says, one with a distinctively human side, as exemplified by community CPR classes and youth tours of the firehouse.

As NCCVFA president, Truitt takes charge of an organization that began in 1922 and now includes 22 volunteer fire companies, the professional Wilmington Fire Department, and three industrial fire brigades. The health and safety of firefighters are her top priority, but with public revenues shrinking, she’s taken aim at the next round of state funding in July.

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State and county funds account for about one-third of volunteer firefighting budgets, with the rest coming from public donations, rental charges and ambulance fees. This year’s budget is set, so Truitt will be campaigning for 2010 monies, though at that time she’ll no longer be the NCCVFA president, who traditionally serves a one-year term.

At the community level on Truitt’s watch, firefighting and safety demonstrations will highlight the annual expo held jointly with Delaware State Police, and fundraising events include this month’s 5K run-walk, earmarked for the relief fund for injured firefighters and their families. Another focus will be recruiting, staffing, and standardizing training and response procedures.

“Individual fire companies [currently] set their own guidelines,” says Wilmington Manor’s Barlow. “We want to make it one culture, and then approach the state. Lynn will be our representative.”

Indeed, the firefighting community speaks with a compelling voice in political circles, and it can point to a solid track record of state legislation that includes the fire-safe cigarette law and the banning of fireworks for personal use. “We’re political, but not partisan,” says DVFA president Jones, a volunteer at Elsmere Fire Company for 40 years.

The fire service’s notable reputation is a strong calling card in Dover. Training and certification programs provided by Delaware State Fire School, based in Dover (with locations in Georgetown and New Castle), have been modeled throughout the country. Mental health workers, among others in the Critical Incident Stress Management program, help firefighters and their families deal with their emotions in the wake of seeing or learning about serious injury or death on the job.

The state coordinator of that program is Lynn Truitt.

The New Castle County Critical Incident Stress Management team, with which Truitt remains active, responded same day to the accident that claimed Delaware City firefighter Michelle Smith’s life last December. Working the overnight shift, Smith was attending to a fallen motorcyclist when both of them were struck by a car that had breached the accident scene. “It could have been any one of us,” says Truitt.

Which is the acknowledgement of those in harm’s way. There will always be sacrifices made and fires to put out in this world, and volunteerism will continue to be among the highest of callings. Lynn Truitt no longer goes out on regular ambulance runs, but now that she’s in position to see the big picture, the smaller ones are that much sharper.  

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