Liza Tatar came to Madison in 1998 after college at the University of Virginia, where she played varsity soccer.
She was working in a coffee shop when a conversation with a customer, a female Madison firefighter, changed her life. The firefighter suggested Tatar consider a firefighting career.
“I had never met a female firefighter,” Tatar said recently.
Tatar joined the Madison Fire Department in 2005. Not long after, back home for a family visit, Tatar proudly shared some firefighting stories. At which point her grandmother said that 50 years ago, in Hungary, she’d been in a “bucket brigade” that brought neighbors together into the street to help fight fires.
Tatar was surprised but delighted. “It’s an honor to be the second in my family to be a female firefighter,” she says.
On a Saturday morning earlier this month, Tatar welcomed another family – mine – to Madison’s Fire Station Number One, at 316 W. Dayton St.
Tatar is currently a division chief and was the officer in charge on the day of our visit to what is Madison’s largest and busiest firehouse.
We were there because the Madison Fire Department had generously donated a tour of the station and a firehouse meal as an item for bid in the annual PBS Wisconsin Auction last June.
My wife, Jeanan, cohosted the auction on television for many years and remains a dedicated supporter of public television. She bid on and won the fire station tour.
Her primary motive was providing the experience to our young granddaughters. Jeanan has been intentional about exposing them to nontraditional female pursuits (though Madison was early inviting women into the fire department: Chief Ed Durkin opened that door in 1980).
The auction item included seven people, which meant the three girls, along with my daughter and son-in-law, Olivia and Lance Miller, and Jeanan and I could all make the visit.
I wouldn’t say I was nervous about it, but a dozen years earlier I’d accepted a fire department invitation that proved quite humbling.
In May 2010 I was one of 55 civilians – mainly media and elected officials, including Kathleen Falk and Mark Pocan – invited to engage in a variety of firefighting activities at the Madison Fire Department’s Fire and Safety Education Center out near the airport. I wrote a newspaper column about how I performed, noting that as I stumbled out of the simulated burn tower, pouring sweat and gasping for breath, I overheard someone say, “You know, the woman from Channel 27 said this was a breeze.”
I needn’t have worried. Our visit this month actually was a breeze, made informative and fun by the firefighters who were in the midst of a 24-hour shift. They work a nine-day cycle: three rounds of a 24-hour shift followed by a day off, after which they have four days off.
There were 10 people on duty that morning, including Tatar and Lt. Jon Mast, a 24-year veteran of the department. Firefighter Matt Murray cooked a delicious buffet-style meal of pancakes, eggs, potatoes, bacon, fruit and pastries. That night they would have pizza, a Saturday tradition.
There was abundant banter back and forth between the firefighters, the kind of humorous putdowns that reflect an easy camaraderie. Mast told me the culture has changed slightly with the ubiquitous presence of cell phones – people staring at screens rather than playing cards and talking – but added that the bond that comes with continual teamwork is undiminished.
Certainly, they honor their own. As we started our tour after the meal, we paused at the stairs off the eating area that lead to the second-floor sleeping quarters.
A large moose head was on the wall and under it a plaque paying tribute to K-Tal Johnson, a hunter and veteran lieutenant in the department who died with his wife in car crash in Indiana in 2006. The department sponsors an annual memorial golf outing in Johnson’s name with proceeds going to charity.
The second floor has beds, a laundry and TV room (there’s a gym in the basement) but what really got the girls’ attention was the hole in the floor and the pole on which the firefighters slide down two floors to the apparatus bay upon receiving a call.
We ended up down there, of course. There was an engine truck, a ladder truck, a new lake rescue airboat and more, all most impressive. Fire Station Number One is home base for the department’s lake rescue team.
One of the firefighters asked the girls if they would like to take a ride on a fire truck. He didn’t have to ask twice. Our third-grade twin granddaughters, Eliana Olayo and Isabella Olayo, and their stepsister, fifth-grader Avri Miller, grinned and climbed aboard.
While they were gone, we heard that between 75% and 85% of the calls that come in are not fire-related but rather medical in nature.
We were told that on one recent weekend – “I think it was homecoming,” Division Chief Tatar said – the station received an astonishing 91 calls.
The truck returned and the girls climbed off, still grinning. Firefighters in the making? I know the morning left us all with feelings of respect and gratitude for the work our hosts do on a daily basis.
As we were about to leave, a reminder: A call came into the station. Conversation ended. There was a flurry of motion. A door opened, a siren sounded, they were gone.
A digital clock high on the wall showed the elapsed time from the incoming call to the truck’s exit. It read 58 seconds.
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