Wendy Clark shattered a local glass ceiling last month when she became the first female firefighter ever hired by the Tiverton Fire Department. While her appointment is a significant milestone for …
Wendy Clark shattered a local glass ceiling last month when she became the first female firefighter ever hired by the Tiverton Fire Department. While her appointment is a significant milestone for the town, it also represents the start of a new chapter for Clark, whose personal journey in the past two years has been characterized by extraordinary challenges.
Clark got her start as a firefighter in 2020 when she was hired by the East Providence Fire Department. Her 30-week training program, which included attendance at the State Fire Academy, the City Academy, and Advanced EMT-Cardiac School, occurred at the height of the pandemic. She recalls that Covid tests were administered weekly and masks were, of course, mandatory.
“We trained wearing masks,” she said. “We could go running without them but right afterward, we’d always hear the command to ‘Get your masks on.’”
Graduation was Feb. 10, 2021. Looking back at the excitement she felt that day, she said it was like being handed a winning lottery ticket.
“My class was awesome, and I was working for a great fire department, with great people.”
But the most memorable part of the graduation ceremony was her mother’s reaction.
“I’ve never seen her like that before — ever. When my mom saw me cross the stage in East Providence, she was just so elated, so emotional. I’m so grateful she got to witness that.”
A special mother/daughter bond
Clark, who was born in South Korea, was adopted by Beverly and Roger Clark when she was four months old. She grew up on the east side of Providence, and she and her mom had what she describes as an inseparable bond.
Five weeks after graduating from the academy, Clark had worked a grueling shift and was at home resting when she placed a call to her father. She knew her mother had not been feeling well earlier in the day. Nonetheless, she was unprepared for his devastating message.
“Mom’s not okay. I have EMS here.”
Her mom, a college professor who was 72 and had no underlying health conditions, had gone into cardiac arrest. She died later that day.
Clark took four days of bereavement leave and then dove immediately back into her job.
“I was on autopilot. I didn’t know what else to do. I was brand new, and I wanted to do this right. I needed to do this job. What was I going to do, stay at home and cry all day?”
By summer, when her tough façade began to crumble, she realized it was time to step away. After a leave of absence, she resigned her position in East Providence and took the time she needed to grieve and heal.
She said one of the benefits of that time away was reinforcement of her belief that fire fighting was a calling she needed to pursue.
“I was home, reading about firefighting, watching firefighting videos, and basically being a nerd. I knew this is what I wanted, and I decided to start over.”
It meant retaking both the physical agility test and written exam, and starting a job search once again. Tiverton’s new fire chief, William Bailey, was previously a fire captain in East Providence. He was familiar with Clark’s work and he encouraged her when she reached out to him to ask about prospects for employment.
“I am thrilled to have her as a probationary firefighter,” said Bailey. “She has all the necessary qualifications. To process a tragic event, it just takes time. Everybody’s different. Sometimes you need to go away and figure things out.”
Clark joins a select few. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, only about five percent of U.S. firefighters are female. She said her choice of such a non-traditional occupation is not surprising, given her upbringing.
“My dad is a professor at Rhode Island College and one of his main focuses of study is gender inequalities and women’s rights, so, as you can imagine, he is ecstatic, and my mom would be too.”