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Fire Department pioneer reflects on making history
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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"I was a tomboy from an early age and knew there was something different about me since I was 7," said longtime Chicago Fire Department ( CFD ) paramedic Pat Ciara. She is the highest-ranking out lesbian in the history of the CFD.

"I wanted to do traditionally boy things but my mom, who was concerned with what the neighbors thought of our family, kept putting me in dresses and trying to get me to play with dolls," she said. "I didn't play with dolls like the other girls did. I used to rip their hair out and carry them by their legs."

That's how Ciara described her childhood growing up in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. She was born in 1948 and attended Catholic school until the end of her freshman year. Her family moved to Worth, Illinois that summer and she spent the rest of her high school years at Richards High School in Oak Lawn.

"During high school, I wanted to play softball but there wasn't a league for girls at my school," said Ciara. "I found a girls' softball team in Evergreen Park, Illinois, called the Evergreen Park Emeralds and joined their team. I used to lie to my mother and tell her I was playing volleyball or something a little more feminine. I would keep my cleats and glove in the trunk of my car."

Ciara worked for a number of years after high school and later graduated from Mayfair College ( now Truman College ) in 1975 with an associate's degree. While attending Mayfair, she was president of the student council.

"I worked for a private ambulance company after I graduated from Mayfair and, while I was doing that, I went to EMT school in 1975 at Lutheran General in Des Plaines, and then paramedic school in 1976 at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood," said Ciara. "Right after paramedic school, I applied to the CFD not knowing whether I'd get in or not, but I had to try, because that's what I really wanted to do.

"Before I worked for the CFD, I owned Town & Country Ambulance Company for about 18 months with a straight, male partner named Gerry. We started it in 1978 and then I got my letter from the CFD telling me I'd been accepted into their ranks. This was exactly what I wanted, so I told Gerry I'd have to sever our business partnership. This was in February of 1980."

Ciara started out at the CFD as a fire paramedic. Eight months later, she was promoted to paramedic in charge and stayed in that role until April 1982. After that, she was promoted to field chief.

As a relief field chief, Ciara had her own vehicle and went to every ambulance house in one of the six districts in the city. She gathered their paperwork, exchanged any broken equipment with working equipment, went with them on their runs and solved any issues that might've happened on that particular day. She did that for 12 years and in 1994 was promoted to chief of EMS training.

"As chief, I took care of all the paramedics that were hired and put them through CFD training," said Ciara. "In 2000, I was promoted to deputy chief paramedic. They assigned me to Field Division One, which is north of Roosevelt Road. I was in charge of 500 paramedics from the Lakefront to O'Hare Airport. I did that until 9/11."

After 9/11, Ciara took over the logistics of the paramedic division, including ordering necessary equipment for the fire trucks and ambulances.

"When I started at the CFD, I had to bring all of my own equipment including a blood pressure cuff, stethoscope and intubation equipment," said Ciara. "They had very little supplies on the ambulances but the situation improved over the years."

While working for the CFD, Ciara completed her education. She earned her Bachelor of Science in business management from National-Louis University in 2001 and her Master of Science degree in industrial relations from Loyola University in 2003.

Ciara was promoted to her final position at the CFD in 2004—district chief, director of personnel. She explained that without her master's degree she wouldn't have gotten the job. As district chief, she worked on everyone's retirement and hiring packets, medical evaluations and those who were ill or injured on the job.

"In 2005, I had a mild heart attack so I had an angiogram and a stent placed in my heart and went through cardiac rehab," said Ciara. "I wanted to go back to work but everyone told me I should go on disability. After trying to go back to work, I decided to take the disability payments and technically I'm still an active duty CFD paramedic, but now that I'm 68, I'm looking at officially retiring. I'm proud of my work as a paramedic. I really loved the job and what I accomplished. Some of the people I mentored are now in positions of power. They still call me for advice and that makes me feel really, really good."

Two of the women who call Ciara for advice are lesbians. She explained that the CFD doesn't have many lesbians or gay men in their ranks because there's still a level of homophobia there.

As far as involvement in LGBT organizations, Ciara was a member of LGPA/GOAL Chicago—the LGBT police and fire association. The organization has participated in the Pride Parade in the past and Ciara noted that the reception they got from the crowd was very positive.

"I never really came out to my family or anyone at the fire department," said Ciara. "I really didn't have to because, as they say, I'm a hundred footer. I'm very butch-looking."

Ciara's siblings ( Michael, Nancy and Marty ) and her nieces and nephews have always been accepting of her and her relationships.

"Marty died by suicide in 2011 and his death really hit me hard because he was my closest sibling," said Ciara. "My wife [Kathleen Ciara-McGuire] and I were on a cruise in Rome when my sister called us with the news. His death was absolutely devastating for me."

Ciara's brother Michael followed in her footsteps and joined the CFD seven years after she joined and, as she puts it, they've become like Velcro since Marty's death.

While working, Ciara said that she talked about her wife the way anyone would talk about their spouse and both women were always included when her co-workers would have social gatherings.

Ciara met her wife online in 1999, when AOL still had its profiles section. They've been together ever since.

"In 2003, we had a civil-union ceremony in Vermont and got married in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Aug. 28, 2010, with Michael serving as my best man," said Ciara. "Since we were already married, all I had to do was send my marriage license to the firefighters pension board to have my status updated when it became legal here."

Recently, the couple moved to Lake Worth, Florida, about 20 minutes north of Fort Lauderdale. Although Ciara-McGuire is currently on long-term disability due to the effects of back surgery, she plans on getting her Florida nursing license so she can continue to work should she recover.

The couple has two golden retrievers—a male named Kevin and a female named Katy.

"We have a huge yard and a pool here and the dogs love it," said Ciara. "We tried in vitro fertilization but it didn't work so the dogs have become our kids."

Prior to moving to Florida, Ciara bowled for nine years at Waveland Bowl with the Windy City Pride bowling league and was their vice-president for three of those years.

"It was the most fun, relaxing time for me," said Ciara. "I was a terrible bowler but, over time, I got really good at it. Before that I was a golfer, but I haven't done that in a few years due to my medical issues. I was also a member of CMSA and played flag football for them."

When asked what she would say to people who are considering working for the CFD or in any other traditionally male-dominated field, Ciara said, "Educate yourself as much as you can, never give up on your goals, never accept defeat and never let them see you sweat."

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