Colette Harmon was late to her own retirement, but it came as no surprise to anyone.
She’d been called out on an emergency, just when the festivities for her last day on the job were about to begin. Luckily, after about 15 minutes, she turned around and drove back to the Sunrise fire station where she was honored by her Gilroy Fire Department peers and received a city proclamation from Mayor Don Gage, just before his own retirement.
Harmon, 56, said she was honored to “just be one of the guys” during her 27 years as a Gilroy firefighter. As the first woman hired by GFD, she never wanted to be treated differently.
On her last day, the guys praised her, saying she was the one they turned to when they needed technical help on computers or machines. She was an engineer who was skilled not just in driving the big rigs, but in fixing them.
They also joked about her strict exercise routine and her healthy eating, which included vegetarian items such as tofu. Some said they snuck away for burgers when she was cooking.
A San Diego native, Harmon worked as a hardware and software engineer on F-14 flight simulators in the Navy, including the ones Tom Cruise used when filming Top Gun.
“We actually used to mess with him,” she said. “Because he wasn’t always the nicest person so we’d always give him flameouts and stuff like that. It was all in fun.”
After leaving the military, she took a job with Grumman, the flight simulator maker, but grew bored. Her best friends were a police officer and a firefighter, and both suggested she try their trades.
“Everybody I talked to at the fire service, just like you see here, they all loved their jobs. That’s why I decided to become a firefighter.”
She tested in San Diego but wanted to work in a smaller town. Someone suggested she try Gilroy.
“I drove up and saw it was a nice little town and they’d never hired a woman, so I always like the challenge.”
She got hired, loved the work and her peers, and never left.
The best part of the job?
“The small town feel. I never had brothers but now I have an extended family of brothers and their families and kids. It’s the closeness of the department. Since it’s so small, you actually know everybody. You know their kids, their birthdays, anniversaries. It’s an extended family. It’s really nice.”
The worst part?
“Ask any firefighter—the scene. Death. Seeing young kids injured. We can only do so much but in our minds you think you can help everyone, save everyone you can. Seeing vehicle accidents where whole families are wiped out. Stuff like that stays with you forever.”
Fires have decreased over the course of her career because of better building safety measures, and fire departments have increased their responsibilities by taking on medical duties.
Her biggest thrills on duty were fighting more than a dozen huge wildfires that called on strike teams from across the state or region. She fought the Devore Fire, the Rocky Fire and too many others to recall.
“Those are like a giant camping trip for two weeks,” she said. “We saw the very worst of everything, the devastation of people losing their homes. But you see the very best in people too. They’d be so thankful. They’d send you signs. They’d come to the base camp and bring you food and water. That really is touching.”
She’s going to spend her retirement based in Santa Cruz, but traveling to ski on unmarked trails all over the West and volunteering to build homes with Habitat for Humanity, something she’s already done.
Plenty of her peers thought she should move up the ranks and go into management for Gilroy’s department, but she preferred not to.
“I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of person,” she said. “I like supporting people. The captain’s job never appealed to me. As an engineer you get to do all three positions. I get to be a firefighter, I get to be an engineer and I get to be a captain. I bump up when my captain is gone.”
There is only one other woman in Gilroy’s department, EMT Chief Mary Gutierrez, who joined a year ago after working for San Jose’s department.
Harmon’s biggest regret is that she never got to work with another woman for most of her career. What advice does she have for women who want to follow in her boot steps?
“First of all you have to have the right attitude. You can’t look for special treatment, because we do the same exact job a guy does. The fire’s not going to look at you and go, ‘you’re a women, so I’m going to be a little less.’
“You have to be held to the same standards as the guys. You’ve got to be flexible. How I’ve always viewed it—because I’ve always worked in a male-dominated field—you know, people call you one of the guys and then they look at you, and I go, ‘No, I am one of the guys!’
“This is who I work with. You have to have that attitude. There’s no differentiation of male or female.”