55-year-old trains as firefighter to fulfill a passion
By Katie Scarvey
Terri Welch has been touched by the stories of many people in her job running a solo district office in Granite Quarry for U.S. Congressman Howard Coble.
No stories touched her more than those of the families of firefighters Victor Isler and Justin Monroe, who lost their lives in the Salisbury Millwork fire last March.
In particular, Terri forged a bond with Lisa Monroe, whose son Justin was just 19 when he died.
Terri and her husband, Harry, know the pain of of losing a child all too well. Their son, Harry Lee III, was killed in a car accident in 1997 when he was only 16 years old.
Inspired by the strength of the fallen firefighters’ families and the devotion of their fellow firefighters locally, she began to consider something that might strike some as crazy: training to become a firefighter at age 55.
“I wanted to do something that mattered,” says Terri, who has several relatives who are firefighters and medical responders.
After she’d made up her mind, she asked the Locke Fire Department chief if he’d be interested in sponsoring her.
Yes, he said ó if she could meet the physical demands.
“I knew it would be challenging,” Welch says, “but I was strong and determined.”
And so three months after surgery to replace a hip, Terri began training at the Fire Academy at Rowan Cabarrus Community College three days a week ó while continuing to work her full-time job running Coble’s Granite Quarry office and continuing, along with her husband, to care for 30 rescue dogs at her home.
Terri, who is a grandmother, was the oldest in her class of 32 and one of only two females. She graduated in June 2008.
This past June 13, she was named Rookie Firefighter of the Year by the Rowan County Fire and Rescue Association.
“Most people in firefighter school are in their 20s or 30s,” said Locke Fire Department Chief Rusty Alexander, adding that Welch is probably the oldest to ever graduate from the program.
When Terri approached him, he recognized how strongly she felt called to serve.
“It’s something she really wanted to do, so we let her go for it,” he said.
In addition to weekday class time, Terri trained from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
It was grueling.
“I admire firefighters more now than ever,” she says. “The public has no idea of how well trained they are.”
Her husband, Harry, was “wonderful,” she says, helping her to stay “focused and driven.”
Coble, her boss, has also been supportive.
“I’m very proud of her,” he said, adding that he was “very surprised” when she told him of her plans.
“I went to her fire station and I could tell the guys were very proud to claim her as one of their own,” he said.
He describes Terri as “very unassuming.”
“I had to drag it out of her that she was Rookie of the Year,” he said.
As she became immersed in her training, Terri discovered quickly that the occupation is dominated by males but is “still achievable by women determined to meet the demands,” she says.
The physical challenge was evident immediately. She had to climb, swing an axe to ventilate roofs, carry heavy ladders and throw them against a building. Those activities would be tough for anyone, let alone a 55-year-old with a new hip.
After one training exercise carrying ladders, her shoulders were black and blue. “I looked like I’d been beat up,” she says.
Welch says she was cut no slack for being older or a woman. “I had to do it all,” she says.
She had a few doubts along the way. About halfway through, she says, she approached Alexander and told him she wasn’t sure if she could make it.
“Yes, you can,” he told her.
Welch did make it through, receiving her Firefighter 1 and 2 certifications. And after that, she went back to school to get Rescue Technician 1 certified, which allows her to assist on medical calls.
All told, Alexander said, Terri went through 600 hours of training in less than a year, while holding down a full-time job.
“That shows a lot of dedication at her part,” he says.
“I am so impressed by her,” says Lisa Monroe. She understands some of what Terri has experienced, since she recently went through EMT training herself. “She’s an awesome woman. She has a real dedication, and you can tell she loves it.”
Terri is now an active volunteer, with the beeper to prove it, available to go on every call on weekends and after 5 p.m. during the week.
And she responds to most of those calls. To maintain active status, she has to respond to a minimum of 50 calls a year, and she easily exceeds that.
“She gets calls at all hours of the night,” Harry says. “She might go out at 2 or 3 in the morning and then have to go to work.”
She believes she’s a firefighter at heart, and like others of the breed, her adrenaline starts pumping on calls when there is smoke or fire.
She also gets pumped up for car accidents, particularly those that require using equipment.
She doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand her excitement when accidents occur. “If you’re trained to do something, you want to do it,” she says simply. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you’re going to help and you have the equipment to help.”
Years ago, before she moved to Salisbury, Welch was an emergency room nurse, so she’s used to tense situations that might leave others rattled.
She doesn’t let much slow her down. Not long ago, she broke her arm ó not firefighting but taking care of the many rescue dogs she and Harry have. She continued to train with a broken arm, under the watchful eye of her chief.
“I still have a tremendous amount to learn,” she says. “Certification on paper is not enough.”
One of her proudest moments was when her fellow Locke firefighters removed her blue “rookie” stripes on her helmet.
Welch loves being a part of her new firefighting family. “It’s a great family to be a part of because we all have the same goal,” she says. “There’s a great sense of fellowship.
Alexander admires her drive. “You kind of wish you had five or 10 more with her dedication,” he said. “I don’t know of a more dedicated firefighter in this county than Terri Welch.”
Bradley McKnight, a Locke volunteer firefighter and training captain, says Terri “gives 110 percent, no problem” and has “the heart and determination” for the job. Named Responder of the Year for the county this year, McKnight is probably a pretty good judge of that.
McKnight, 34, added he’d be happy if his body was as able to handle the demands of the job 20 years from now as Terri’s is.
Occasionally, Terri’s busy life does exact a toll: she’s recently suffered a broken arm and torn knee cartilage.
But she is unwavering.
“Everyone has some passion that drives them to do something,” she says. “And when you find that passion, you find the will power to do it at all costs. It may be something simple or something that seems extraordinary, but that is what defines you. Firefighting is my passion.
“Whoever said that at my age life would be slow and easier haven’t walked in my shoes,” she says. “Most people are looking at retiring at this point, not beginning new careers, but I would have it no other way.”