If they’d just dared her, Denise Burks said, she probably would have applied for the Newnan Fire Department opening right away.
She was a secretary in 1987, rotating between the fire department and the Newnan Police Department, when a spot opened up at Station 1. Some of the firefighters approached Burks and said she should apply for the opening because firefighters were paid more than she was making as a secretary.
“I told them I just didn’t think I could do it,” she said, and that was that – until another person left a few months later.
Openings are rare at the high-retention agency, so an even bigger group of “the guys” came back to try and convince her to apply.
Her answer was still no. It was too risky, and Burks needed her steady job.
“I told them, ‘At the end of the year, if I haven’t passed all the physicals and state tests, I won’t have a job, but y’all will,’” she said.
One of them called in a favor from a relative – then-Coweta County Sheriff Larry Hammett, who promised her a job at the jail if she couldn’t hack the firefighting requirements.
“They pulled the last prop out from under me,” Burks said.
She admitted that if they’d only told her she couldn’t do it and dared her to try, she’d have jumped at the chance.
“I’d have said, ‘Watch me!’” she said.
At the end of her first year, she had no trouble meeting all the requirements, and she never needed to call on Hammett for a job. In fact, Burks – who officially became the first woman firefighter in the Newnan Fire Department in 1988 and eventually worked her way up to battalion chief – has outlasted all the guys who first talked her into applying for the job.
“They’re all gone or retired, and I’m still working here, at least for a few more days,” said Burks, who on Dec. 29 will hang up her gear and join her husband, Audie, in retirement.
Her transition into the male-dominated field was as drama-free and no-nonsense as Burks.
She bunked in a converted storage closet instead of with the men, but it wasn’t a “women-only” zone – men from other shifts slept there on her days off.
Occasionally, fellow firefighters might find themselves awkwardly apologizing after giving her a congratulatory smack on her backside, as they often did with the other men, after the crew successfully put out a structure fire. But generally, Burks said, being a woman never held her back.
“My attitude was always if you have a problem with me because I’m a woman, that’s your problem and you can tote it,” Burks said. “I’m not toting your problem for you.”
Her first promotion was to fire truck driver. She also became a certified EMT so she had the option of working on her days off.
“I like to be busy,” Burks said.
So much for a ‘nice, quiet life’
It was while she was pulling double duty as an EMT in 2001 that she met Audie. Audie’s mother, Betty, and their rescue dog, Ellie, make up the couple’s lively household.
“He had a nice, quiet life before he met me,” Burks said. “Now he has a full-time job trying to keep up with me, his mother and the dog.”
She said she doesn’t expect her activity level to change when she retires – just where her energy is focused.
“I’m always too busy going forward to have time to look back,” Burks said. “I’m always trying to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
She mentors and manages artists in the music business – her mother, Phyllis Bennett, discovered country star Doug Stone – and Burks said she wants to learn an instrument so she can accompany herself as she writes songs.
The couple also owns a Florida rental property that they manage themselves. Burks said one exchange during a recent trip proves that Audie understands what he’s in for when she retires.
“He saw a sign out in a shop that said ‘Help Wanted,’ and he told me I needed to turn my head,” Burks said. “He knew I’d be in the door saying, ‘I’m only going to be here a week but I think it’s going to rain Tuesday and Thursday. Want me to work?’”
She plans to spend more time with family – especially her two young great-nieces – and travel is definitely in Burks’ retirement plans. Audie is adamant that their trips will have to wait until the pandemic is over, though.
“I would go anywhere, but my husband revoked my passport,” she said. “I can’t go see the pyramids because I’ll get COVID.”
‘It’s like you’re leaving your family’
She may be able to keep herself plenty busy, but Burks doesn’t deny she is going to miss her firefighter family.
“This is unlike most jobs where you work eight hours and go home,” she said. “We live together, cook together, argue over what we’re going to watch on TV … I’ve watched these co-workers’ children be born, go to grammar school and college, and grow up. It’s like you’re leaving your family, not just leaving your job.”
Chief Stephen Brown said he and Burks have a special bond.
“We took to each other very early and always have been very, very close friends,” he said. “We came up through the ranks together, and she’s always been a tremendous leader. We’re going to miss her. She’s been a rock up here.”
The firefighters consider her a role model, according to Captain Travis Hall.
“We all have high regard for her,” he said. “She’s like a second mom to all of us. She’s the best – when you’re having a bad day or things are going wrong, she’s the one you call. I can make one phone call and she’ll bring in the cavalry.”
The worst moment of people’s lives
Burks said that compassion is one of many necessary traits in her job.
“You have to be a caretaker,” she said. “You have to care about people. You have to be action-oriented. You have to be able to separate your emotions from a crisis. You don’t have the type of job where you come to work and you can correct it if you get it wrong.
If you don’t love it, firefighting is not the job for you, according to Burks.
“If it’s not your passion, you’re just in prison until you die,” she said. “There’s not enough money in the world to make you run into a burning building, to go where a person has died and deal with those raw emotions and grief, if you don’t love it.”
It’s a job that you have to do at what is often the worst moment of people’s lives, when they’re depending on your help.
“You arrive at somebody’s home or wherever they’re at, and you see that relief on their faces,” Burks said. “Whether somebody is sick, or there’s been an auto accident or a fire, and you see that relief when they’re thinking somebody is there to help them – that’s what keeps most of us going, from the time we pull up, open the door and put a foot out.”
One final milkshake
As in most headquarters of life-and-death professions, humor abounds at Station 1.
Her work family is planning to send her on her way with as much celebratory fuss as is appropriate, but Burks said she drew the line at one suggestion.
“I told them, ‘If you bury me in my work clothes, I will haunt you,’” she said. “I am not going to lay out in that cemetery forever in my uniform.”
It’s something she won’t have to worry about for a long time, if she has her way.
“I want to be 105, walking around Court Square, drinking a milkshake, and just fall over dead,” she said. “But not until I get to the bottom of the milkshake.”