Luanne Whitmer, the first female member of Aurora, IL Local 99 and the wife of fire fighter Steve Whitmer, also of Local 99, is retiring after 22 years of service.
Whitmer came to the department in 1994 when she was 34, and it would be just under 20 years before another female fire fighter joined her in a department of almost 200 fire fighters.
“When I was accepted into the Aurora Department, I knew there wouldn’t be very many women, but I was very surprised to find none at all!” says Whitmer.
Becoming a fire fighter had been her dream since her fire fighter father took her up in the ladder truck. “I thought to myself, this is so cool. It was the greatest thing,” says Whitmer. However, in high school, a school counselor advised her, “Oh, no. You can’t be a fire fighter. Why don’t you go into beauty school?”
So Whitmer became a successful hair stylist. When she was 30, she recalls, “There just came a point where I was like, there has to be something more than this. I felt compelled to find something more fulfilling.”
Whitmer took the tests she needed to get in, and did well. She got the call on Valentine’s Day in 1994 that she had been accepted as a new recruit.
Whitmer says she was first assigned to a station where, initially, not many other members were eager to work with her. “They just wanted me to prove myself, to pull my weight,” she explains. Because it was a busy station, she saw more fires during that time than any in her career. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she says.
In the last two years, two other women have joined Local 99. Whitmer is seen as a trailblazer of sorts, although she wouldn’t call herself that. “You know, in the beauty industry, if a man came in to work, he had to adapt to the environment around him – and that’s what I did when I became a fire fighter.”
Now retired, Whitmer says she has had the best experience and would do it all over again. “I would recommend this job to anybody, man or woman, it’s the best one out there.”
Whitmer and her husband – now both recently retired – moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to be near Luanne’s family. They are both avid lovers of the outdoors and plan to “figure out this whole retirement thing” side by side.