Born to fight

New Fire Division Chief Mary Gutierrez, center, poses for a photo with Chestnut Station firefighters. Gutierrez joined the academy in 1988 and was a captain for 12 years.

Throughout her life, Mary Gutierrez has fought to prove she can excel in male-dominated fields—whether it’s competitive bodybuilding, sparring with Marines or fighting fires. Now, she’s breaking down barriers as the first woman in a management position with the Gilroy Fire Department.
On Oct. 1, Gutierrez took over as chief of the GFD’s paramedic division. She manages a group of firefighters who are just as qualified at quashing blazes as they are at saving lives through emergency medical procedures, she said. Gutierrez, who has lived in Gilroy the past 11 years, most recently served as battalion chief with the San Jose Fire Department and worked as a firefighter-paramedic for 15 years.
“She’s the first one up and the last one to sit down,” GFD Chief Alan Anderson said, adding he worked alongside Gutierrez at the San Jose Fire Department, serving with a busy downtown engine company. “She’s not going to ask you to do something she’s not going to do herself—and when you do it, she’s right there beside you…we’re very excited she chose Gilroy because with her skill set and her résumé, she could have gone anywhere.”
Gutierrez graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a Bachelor’s degree in law and political science, and said becoming a firefighter was always in the back of her mind. But when she moved to Danville to work as a legal secretary, in line with her chosen path at the time, the voice in the back of her mind grew louder.
“One day, I just cold-called a fire station in Dublin,” Gutierrez said. “When a captain picked up, I asked ‘how do you become a firefighter?’ He said, ‘as a matter of fact, we’re starting an academy in two weeks. Why don’t you come talk with me?’”
The captain on the other end of the phone that day ended up becoming a close mentor. Before she knew it, she said, Gutierrez was attending the Twin Valley Fire Academy to become a firefighter.
“Once I was in the academy that very first day, I knew it was my calling,” she said. “I’d never seen such a group of individuals—there were two other gals in it and the rest were guys—so excited about their career.”
She continued to work as a legal secretary while securing her emergency medical technician license, and scored at the top of her class during training at the academy. Gutierrez graduated and soon landed a job with the Lawrence Livermore Lab Fire Department in 1989.
She knows firsthand the passion and the drive of those serve as firefighters—and she’s encouraged by what she’s already observed in her new post at the Gilroy Fire Department.
“The things that I’ve seen are the energy, the motivation and the pride of both places (at the San Jose and Gilroy Fire Departments), but I see an incredible level of pride here,” she added. “The teamwork is the amazing thing here and they’ve welcomed me with open arms.”
Gutierrez said she plans on jumpstarting a mentorship program for young women, in the hopes that by showing them she can advance to a high rank in a field dominated by males, it will encourage them to pursue their dreams.
“When you’re in a management position, you have more of an ability to make positive change—and I’ve always been about that,” Gutierrez said. “I’m the kind of person who has to learn and grow and I’m not fearful of that growth.”
Anderson, who was hired as fire chief in 2012, said the GFD can and should do more to help foster a staff that reflects the community at large.
“As the fire service, we’ve got to get out there and inspire young girls and women that they can have a viable career here,” he said. “We haven’t done a good job with that and we need to market ourselves better to the female population.”
Anderson said he hopes to expand the pool of viable candidates for the fire service locally.
“What we need to do—and Mary is strong about recruiting—is that we want to start getting out into the high schools,” he added. “The women that fall in love with this job tend to be the ones who were on sports teams—they were on the volleyball team or they love the teamwork and camaraderie, the group environment or want to help people in times of need. We need to get out and share with girls in high school that this is a viable career for them. That’s where the outreach has to start. I think by having Mary in her position here, she’s going to demonstrate to females in the community they can reach the high ranks in the fire service.”
Mentoring others is something that comes naturally to Gutierrez, who explained she was inspired to begin competitive bodybuilding by a female mentor—and Olympic hurdler—in school. But the fire service presents some unique challenges for women, she said, like being looked at by passersby surprised there’s a woman on a fire engine.
“The fire service is steeped with tradition and rules, sometimes that are unspoken, and expectations that sometimes are unspoken,” Gutierrez said, adding that women only make up three percent of the fire departments across the nation. “I try to teach young women just to focus on the job at hand and be confident. If you’re well trained and you’ve prepared, it doesn’t matter what your gender is. You have to be just as strong mentally as you are physically—especially for women.”
“I’m the third woman who has even been hired (by Gilroy Fire) and there’s never before been a woman in the senior management for the fire department. I’m proud of that. I’m proud they have the vision to know it’s not based on gender and that I had the opportunity to be here,” she added. “I tell people to never set their sights low. Dream big. Nothing in my life has ever really been easy. Sure, there have been a lot of hurdles, but you know what, I’ve learned how to jump them.”

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