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First Woman to Join Fire Department

By JEANNE WHITNEY

Specially Written for The Times

"The best never rest," is the Scotch Plains Township Volunteer Fire Department motto. Newly-appointed firefighter Carolyn Sorge, 24, will spend the next year discovering what that company motto means for her.

Like the other 36 firefighters under the direction of township Fire Chief Jonathan P. Ellis, Ms. Sorge will be on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. She is the only female firefighter in the department’s 128-year history. How do you become a volunteer firefighter? By volunteering, said Ms. Sorge.

"I grew up in a house where my parents volunteered. My father was on the rescue squad for 15 years and President for 13," she said.

Ms. Sorge was only 16 years old when she herself trained as an Emergency Medical Technician and began non-stop volunteering with the Scotch Plains Volunteer Rescue Squad, following the death of her father. A younger brother is also on the squad.

"I like helping people and helping the town," Ms. Sorge said.

So earlier this year, Ms. Sorge approached Chief Ellis and told him she was interested in volunteering as a firefighter. The Township Council appointed her on February 3.

Ms. Sorge spent four months at Union County Fire Science Training Academy in Linden and graduated with a class of 30 others that included fellow township resident Michael Cuccurullo, 25. Mr. Cuccurullo joined the south side firehouse. There was one other female student in the class, according to Ms. Sorge.

Firefighter Sorge also works full-time as a secretary to Township Manager Thomas E. Atkins in an office across the street from the north side fire station.

Now, when an alarm comes over her electronic pager, Firefighter Sorge -- No. 55 – hurries over to the firehouse, steps into overalls, boots, jacket, gloves and hat and climbs aboard an engine.

These days, firefighters ride inside hi-tech fire engines on seats with oxygen tanks for backs that snap out onto the backs of firefighters as they descend from the truck. They always team up using "the buddy system" and every firefighter wears a personal alarm that sounds after 30 seconds if no motion registers.

So far, Firefighter Sorge has answered two calls in the township that involved burning houses.

"I was working outside," she said.

One of the academy training requirements, however, is fighting an actual fire at the "burn building," according to Ms. Sorge. What is it like? "It’s very hot," she said, "and you get very close to the fire."

"I’m not afraid. But you think about your first real fire and what’s really going to happen. When everyone is going out, we are going in," she explained.

Fortunately, a good number of township calls for the fire department are false alarms from security systems. The department, however, also participates in the Mutual Aid Agreement to back up and assist neighboring fire departments on calls.

"It’s important to work as a team," Miss Sorge said, "and everyone has been very helpful."

But she has ended up with a private bathroom at the firehouse, at least until another female joins the department. "There are no sleeping quarters, since it’s volunteer," she said, "but there is a lounge with a television. You need to unwind after a call."

Does her family worry about her work as a firefighter? "They are very supportive of what I do," she said. "I think I’m here to stay for awhile."

Firefighter Sorge, a lifelong township resident, said she recently joined the professional organization of Fire Service Women of New Jersey. She reports there is a woman Fire Chief from a southern New Jersey town and two women firefighters form the New Providence Department.

"I’m a firefighter like anyone else. As long as you can do it, that’s what’s important. That’s why you do these things, because you want to help," she concluded.

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10/25/97.

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