Back in 1993, Assistant Chief Deb Barros became the first female firefighter of the Dickinson Fire Department to ever suit up in gear and uniform, firing up the engines in the male-dominated field and igniting the future to a more diverse department.
Now, Barros is retiring Friday, March 12, after more than 35 years of service with the Dickinson Fire Department and 43 years with the City of Dickinson altogether, as she first began her career as a dispatcher for the Dickinson Police Department.
“I have exceeded the expectations of when I first heard I’m going to transfer over to the fire department. Where that was going to lead, there was just no expectation,” Barros said. “But being here today, it exceeded expectations and beyond what we’ve achieved here.”
Barros began working in June 1978 for the Dickinson Police Department as a dispatcher and was later appointed as the community service officer. During her last year at the Dickinson Police Department, Barros went to the North Dakota Law Enforcement Academy and became a licensed officer.
During her time as an officer, her husband, Greg, applied for an opening position at the police department. However, the decision had to be finalized by the Dickinson City Commission and at that time, they were in discussion about a nepotism ordinance, Barros said. Though the ordinance was not in effect, the commission struggled to hire him. After some discussion, the current fire chief at the time had Barros transfer over to the fire department in October 1985 and created a job for her as the fire prevention/education officer.
“So I went from crime prevention to fire prevention,” Barros said, chuckling. “In hindsight, you know how destiny has a way of working out… I never thought I’d end up in the fire service with a criminal justice background but you’re still enforcing fire codes and you’re still communicating with the public on fire safety. So as far as an easy transition, I think I was doing those things but now we are just changing the topic of conversation.”
Working her way up the ladder, Barros eventually became a fire inspector. Then in 1993, one of Barros’ female friends and fellow fire service coworker said to her, “We got to get on the suppression side of the department, actually put on the gear and go fight the fires.” Their tenacity turned some strong opinions at the fire department during that pinnacle era, Barros said.
“I guess at the time we felt really good about it but now it is just the way it is. We felt good. We trained, worked real hard and passed all the requirements. I’ll never forget one of the firefighters at the time (who) was so against, after we got on and did our jobs and pulled our own weight, he said, ‘Well, it wasn’t that big of a deal that we made it at the time. It’s worked out quite well,’” Barros said, with a big smile. “So that made us feel good that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it could be.”
Current Fire Chief Jeremy Presnell noted that Barros was a top campaigner for women in fire service.
“I don’t know that there could have been a better advocate and promoter for women on the fire service specifically in Dickinson other than Deb. She did an excellent job and has been a great role model not just for women, (but) for anyone that wants to be a firefighter and serve their community,” Presnell remarked.
Down the road, Barros became the fire prevention specialist. Then in February 2016, former Chief Robert Sivak appointed Barros as assistant chief.
With the Bakken oilfield boom, Barros witnessed the fire department evolve with its growing full-time staff and the establishment of the new station located within the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center. Computer technology expanded exponentially within fire departments across the nation now incorporating computers in fire trucks and utilizing applications that allowed employees do their jobs more efficiently.
The culture of fire service changed, especially after 911, Barros said, explaining the evidence of cancer led departments into investing in prevention methods, new equipment and physical fitness initiatives.
Besides assisting the fire chief with his duties, a huge initiative Barros strived to achieve during her tenure was supporting the department’s members in both health and wellness for full-time employees and volunteers.
Though fire training has always been in effect, the department now responds to more than just fire calls such as calls of hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction, rope rescue, auto extrication and medical assist calls.
The community-orientated portion of being an assistant chief was a huge motivator for Barros while also being able to meet and establish relationships with all of the firefighters that have come through and moved on to other departments.
“(It’s) bittersweet. So it’s a good feeling to be retiring knowing that the leadership that they currently have, they’re in good hands and to take the department and move it to always improve it,” Barros said, adding, “The bitterness is that I won’t be a part or be around to see that all transpire but we all know that every generation has contributed to where we are today, so that will continue and strive to be better.”
Taking over Barros’ duties for the time being is Fire Marshal Mark Selle. Presnell noted that the department is not making any immediate decisions to fill Barros’ shoes.
Barros hopes that her long-time career and contributions to the Dickinson Fire Department will inspire others to choose a fire service career.