A siren would sound, calling firefighters to an emergency and setting Helen J. Silliman’s heart aflutter. At the scene, her adrenaline would kick in, and the nervousness would ebb.
Once the work was completed and the fire extinguished, “you begin to shake,” said Silliman, 80, recalling her time as a volunteer firefighter.
Scattered across the dining room table in her South Wales home are authoritative-looking folders issued by the State Senate, the Assembly and the House of Representatives, each containing certificates that pay tribute to Silliman and the late Florence M. “Flossie” Bragg as pioneers for women in fire service.
Fifty years ago, Silliman and Bragg became the first female firefighters in Erie County after volunteering with the South Wales Fire Company. Last week, they were honored with a ceremony hosted by the fire company, where a framed proclamation from the town cited them as “trailblazers” who “cleared the path which brought change to the culture of fire service for future generations of female fire leaders.”
Silliman was caught off-guard by the flurry of recognition. “It’s very heartwarming and humbling, but I’m glad we paved the way,” she said.
Amid the praise, Silliman, a grandmother to 12 and great-grandmother to seven, insists she was just doing what needed to be done. As firefighters, she and Bragg provided relief to male breadwinners, who often worked long hours. They acted mostly as first-aid providers, but that required them to become firefighters for insurance purposes, Silliman explained.
As wives of men in leadership roles at the firehouse – Bragg’s husband, Joe, was a fire chief, and Silliman’s husband, Floyd, was a first-aid captain – Silliman joked that she and Bragg had little choice. Silliman described the company of about 35 or 40 members as open-minded about Silliman and Bragg’s presence.
“The men were very gracious and very kind and very helpful,” Silliman said. “We were like one big family, and they just made you feel very welcome.”
Silliman estimates she answered between 50 and 60 calls, balancing her time at the firehouse with caring for three young children.
She’s quick to give special credit to Bragg, her husband’s aunt, who had older children and ended up answering calls with more frequency than herself.
Bragg’s son, Bob, attended the Wednesday ceremony, making the trip from Tennessee. Of high school age when his mother volunteered with the fire company, Bob Bragg has difficulty recalling specifics about his mother’s time with the company but said it was in her character to occupy her time with work in the community.
“She was just that type of a person. She was always active in something,” Bob Bragg said of his mother, who died at age 85 in 2003. “She was not a person to sit still.”
Black and white images of Silliman and Bragg were compiled into a short picture book and presented at Wednesday’s reception. In one photo, Bragg answers a call from the front seat of a “new” 1960s Volkswagen emergency car as Silliman holds a first-aid kit in the back seat. In another posed photo, Silliman and Bragg face the camera in coordinated hats and bulky black fire boots.
Letters from area fire companies thanking Silliman and Bragg for their service were scanned into the book’s later pages. “You are a true inspiration,” wrote one fire company. “Thank you for showing everyone that females can do it.”
“Thank you for opening the door to women,” wrote another.
Nowadays, Silliman busies herself with water aerobics twice a week, porcelain painting and other crafts. At 76, she went sky diving in South Carolina.
“It was cool,” Silliman said, breaking into laughter.