Retired Rockdale County firefighter Juli Moncrief, left, developed a special bond with Rockdale firefighter Melissa Larson, now the sole female in fire suppression in the county.
It's not uncommon for people to express surprise when Melissa Larson pulls off her face piece, a protective fire mask, after she's responded to the scene of an emergency.
"They say 'That's a fire lady.' We get that all the time," said Larson. "That's neat. You get a sense of pride."
Larson joined the Rockdale County Fire Department two years ago and is the only female in the department to be assigned to fire suppression, out of 140 who hold that position. Her career has overlapped with that of Juli Moncrief, who worked for 24 years as a firefighter in fire suppression for Rockdale and retired in July.
According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2010 less than 4 percent of firefighters were women.
On a recent Tuesday, the two women met at Rockdale County Fire Station No. 8, where they embraced and shed a few tears. For Moncrief, returning to the station brought back lots of memories; Larson missed her friend and mentor.
"The first time I met Juli, she grabbed me in a big hug and said 'I'm so happy you're here.' It just felt right from the beginning," said Larson of their friendship.
Larson called Moncrief "awesome" and said the former firefighter gave her pep talks when she felt exhausted from the eight-week intensive training at rookie school.
"On the summer days when I came home and was worn out and mentally broken down from it all, Juli would say, 'You got it, just keep with it,'" said the 29-year-old Larson, mother of Ansley, 7, and Billy, 12.
Like Larson, Moncrief began her firefighting career as she raised her two school-age children.
"My husband (Randall Moncrief) put the idea in my head. He said, 'You love to work outdoors, you like to help people, you like physical type work, you ought to look into that,'" said Moncrief, who had met several Rockdale firemen while working construction clean-up jobs.
"I thought 'A woman doesn't do that. That's a man's job,' but I did some research and called around to different counties and talked to other women. It just really piqued my interest."
Moncrief applied for a Rockdale firefighter position and passed the agility test but failed the written test because she wasn't familiar with the equipment. She studied hard for the second try, and made it clear she wanted the job.
"I told the chief, if I don't make it this time, you'll see me again and again and so you might as well just hire me," said Moncrief. "He told me later that that stuck in his mind."
The Rockdale Fire Department hired her in 1988, the only female firefighter in the county.
"There were times when I'd walk in amongst them, I felt like a lamb in a lion's den. It was quite intimidating at first. You didn't know how they were going to accept you," she said.
Moncrief said the men took a wait-and-see approach, giving her time to prove her abilities.
"That is something I have always appreciated. They never snubbed me. They always encouraged me," said Moncrief.
"They accepted me and let me be a part of their team. I never wanted to be separated out. I'm a firefighter and I happen to be female."
Larson said public service runs in her family -- an uncle is a retired fire captain and her late grandfather served in law enforcement.
A 2001 graduate of Newton High School and a Covington resident, Larson earned her emergency medical technician certification from DeKalb Technical Institute, now Georgia Piedmont Technical College.
Visiting the fire stations while riding with the ambulances, she decided to be a firefighter. Rockdale County Fire Department hired her in April 2010.
Larson said the fire station, where she works 24 hours on and 48 hours off, has become her second home, her co-workers like family.
"At first, I didn't know what to expect. I wasn't sure how I would be accepted but once I got on, I'm just one of the guys," said Larson.
Larson said when she can't use brute force to get the job done, she re-thinks the situation.
"Everybody has a different task and we all have to come together to get the job done," said Larson.
Moncrief, who is 5-foot-5-inches tall, ran, lifted weights and did aerobics to stay in shape for her job.
"Because I was female, it was very important to me that I did my part. I didn't want them to think that they needed to take up my slack," she said. "I felt like I had to do 110 percent just to be on even keel with them."
Moncrief described being a firefighter as a "jack of all trades" -- crawling in burning buildings, prying open automobiles; driving the fire truck.
"You've got to rely on your training, keep your eyes open and watch each other's back. There's just so much going on at once -- you're watching other people, you're watching yourself, you've got the hose to pull and the equipment and it's all got to happen right then," she said.
Moncrief said her first trauma call was a head-on collision, a gruesome scene.
"The next day I could see the accident over and over again and I cried for days. That's when I had to make my mind up, 'OK, you can handle this.' I made my mind up right then that somebody's got to do it, if I wasn't there, somebody's got to do it, so it might as well be me," she said.Larson said it can be a job of extremes, helping people at their worst times, such as when their house has burned down, or at their best, such as when they've given birth.
"I'm always excited to go to work and see what the day will bring because it's never the same thing," she said.
Moncrief's career choice influenced that of her children -- son Randy Moncrief is a firefighter in Newton County and son Jacob Moncrief worked as an EMT and is now a nurse for the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Now that she is retired, Moncrief devotes more of her time working in a local doctor's office, a second job she's held since 1993.
She admits she'll probably never get firefighting completely out of her system. Sirens get her blood pumping and adrenaline going.
"I still get goose bumps," said Moncrief.
Larson said she'd like to retire from the Rockdale County Fire Department, and she wouldn't mind having some female company at the fire station.
"There's always opportunities for women. We need more good women to be around," she said.
"The biggest thing I had in my mind that's kept me going is I had to believe I could do it. I think you have to have something that you are working for and for me, it was my children. I wanted every day for my kids to be proud of me."