Emory Report
December 4, 2006
Volume 59, Number 13


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December 4 , 2006
Some like it hot

by kim urquhart

Bridget Williams is the face of fire safety — literally. Emory’s director of fire safety, suited up in full turnout gear, is gracing advertisements posted in high schools throughout DeKalb County, promoting Georgia Perimeter College’s degree program for fire management.

Williams is used to being high profile: the former firefighter was the first African-American female to join the DeKalb County fire department, and at the time was one of only three women on the entire force.

Though she had to prove herself, Williams has only positive things to say about her fire-fighting days. “I was just one of the guys,” part of a family of firefighters that risked their lives to save others, she says.

After nearly 10 years of fighting fires, however, she shifted her focus to preventing them. She says she was “ready for a change” and wanted to be more active in the community. So she took a temporary position with Emory’s fire safety department in 2001, and by 2004 had moved into her current leadership role.

Williams still works closely with her former colleagues at Fire Station No. 1, which neighbors Emory on Clifton Road. Her fire safety work at Emory often takes her to the station for training, tours or inspections.

Williams has led the charge for increased training and awareness at Emory. “Everyone always thinks ‘oh, a fire will never happen,’” she says, “but really one in three people will experience some type of fire-related emergency in their lifetime.”

The main goal of the division, she explains, “is to decrease fire-related emergencies that threaten life and property, and to increase fire safety of the entire Emory community.” Her goal is to increase education and hands-on training.

“You have thirty seconds to react and decide what to do, or evacuate,” she says. “I personally know that if people are taught how to respond to fire-related emergencies, it increases their effectiveness two-and-a-half times.”

Hands-on training is particularly important, she says, because “you never know how people will react.” Even in her on-campus demonstrations, where she sets fires in pans and trainees practice extinguishing them, some will still “freak out” when they see the flames and rising smoke.

Williams organized the first Student Fire Academy, held earlier this fall, to train Emory resident hall directors and assistants in fire safety techniques. The RAs and RHDs spent time at a training facility in Decatur, where they learned to navigate smoke-filled corridors, to operate fire extinguishers, and to master other fire safety procedures, such as accounting for all residents.

More than 100 RAs and RHDs attended the academy, and the University plans to offer the program annually. In addition, DeKalb County has modeled its news media training course on Williams’ Emory program.

“It was a really positive experience,” says Williams. “In fact, I was asked to do training for an entire residence hall,” a request that she is always happy to fulfill.

She recalls how one student put his training to the test when he used a fire extinguisher — one of the 100 extinguishers Emory’s fire safety division gives away each year — to put out a grease fire caused by a fish fry in a residence hall. “I was so proud of him,” Williams says of the student.

Williams has been busy working with Emory’s human resources department to create an online course on fire safety, which will be free and available to all of Emory beginning this spring.
Williams also uses her expertise to create personal evacuation plans. This service particularly appeals to people with disabilities, she says.

Williams’ fire-fighting career began in L.A., when the mother of three decided to work outside the home. She enjoyed helping people, and thought she would like to be a police officer.

She soon realized that firefighting was more her style, but limited openings in the L.A. area led her to expand her search nationwide. “I traveled all over the United States interviewing and taking tests, and DeKalb County was the first department that hired me,” she explains.

The physical demands of the job didn’t faze her. “I had always been athletic,” she says. Williams was soon able to bench-press 165 pounds, earning her the public safety female bench press record for eight years running.

Even though her “desk job” at Emory has allowed someone else — just last year – to best her bench-press record, Williams is still an athlete. She enjoys swimming, basketball, volleyball and tennis, and coaches her children’s Little League teams. Her interests also include deep-sea fishing, something she misses about living on the California coast.

And although she gets a twinkle in her eye when she speaks of her days driving the tiller ladder on a sleek, red fire truck, she doesn’t miss smelling like smoke and says she really appreciates life at Emory.

And what words of wisdom does the fire safety director have for the Emory community? “Prepare for the unexpected, because emergencies happen, fires happen,” she says. “So be prepared. Even just a little knowledge goes a long way.”