From putting out fires to delivering babies, Austin firewoman Melody Liao shares what her job is really like.
By Lindsey Logan, Photo by Chris Wilkinson for Austin Fire Department
For the past six years, Melody Liao has demonstrated women are capable of anything. With passion, strength and hard work, Liao holds her own in the predominantly male field of firefighting.
On what made her want to become a firefighter: “I went to the Liberal Arts and Science Academy High School and they introduced a new program, the LBJ Fire Academy. It was a two-year program I was in during my junior and senior years. There was a medical and fire component and, basically, you went through the entire fire academy. If you were 18, at the end of it, you could test and get certified. I wasn’t 18 at the time, so I wasn’t able to, but that’s how I learned about firefighting. I had never thought about it before. It’s just not a career you think of as a female, unfortunately. I think it’s changing now, though. So, I got a taste of firefighting through the program and I really enjoyed it. I decided to go to college, and when I finished, I was either planning to go to medical school or fire academy, and I thought I would enjoy being a firefighter so much more, so I went for it.”
On her favorite memory in the field: “One of my favorite calls was when we got to deliver a baby. The mother was waiting for her husband to get home to drive her to the hospital but there wasn’t enough time. When we got there, she was sitting in the passenger seat of their car, about to deliver, so we moved her onto a stretcher and into the ambulance, and she delivered within the next five minutes. A lot of times, when people are surprised like that, by the time we get there, the baby is already out. But this one was the full thing, so it was really cool. A lot of calls are people having the worst day of their lives, but this was a happy call. We helped her deliver, there weren’t any complications, the baby was healthy and it was just nice that we were celebrating.”
On her most intense memory in the field: “We had a call where a family member stabbed, like, five other family members and that was crazy because the number of patients outnumbered us. So, it was kind of a matter of triage and the medics arriving pretty quickly. Another call, there was a shooting at an apartment complex and that was crazy because all the residents knew each other, so there was a crowd of people outside yelling, ‘Go save him. Go help them,’ just a lot of pressure from the crowd. And the guy required traumatic CPR, which is hard. When you do CPR, the heart has stopped, so you’re taking over the function of the heart. When you have traumatic CPR like this case, when you pump the chest, the blood is still leaking out, so you’re not really fixing the problem; you’re just doing the best you can until that person gets to the hospital. And there was a huge crowd of people around us putting a lot of pressure on us to do something and we [were] doing the best we [could,] so that one was kind of crazy because of the emotion. I’ve had a couple infant CPRs too and those are always incredibly emotional with the parents on scene.”
On what she eats at the station: “I usually pack my food. I’m kind of a grazer. Around lunch, I usually snack. I try to get some carbs and protein to fuel me, but I don’t like a set lunch. For dinner, a typical meal I have is brown rice, sautéed bell peppers and red onions, shredded chicken or ground beef topped with avocado, kind of like Chipotle-style.”
On firefighter reality shows: “Like all TV, it’s much more dramatic. Supposedly, Chicago Fire is based on true events. I’m sure it’s dramatized. Crazy stuff does happen, but typically, you’re not going to have a shift where crazy stuff is happening back to back. The majority of calls are medical calls. That surprises people, but the majority of what we do is medical and a lot of traffic accidents and probably, you know, 5 to 10 percent is fires and maybe only 1 percent is, like, a true, raging fire. We definitely do have calls like that, but TV is very dramatized.”
On what makes a good firefighter: “Anyone with the right attitude can do this job. You got to have compassion. Strength can be trained; you can work to where you are physically capable of doing this job, but much more important than that is having heart, not giving up. You’re going to be in stressful situations. You’re going to be pushed physically and mentally beyond what you think you’re capable of. And if you have heart and the right attitude, then you will persist and do well. You don’t have to be the bravest person. I get scared sometimes but it’s OK as long as you can keep going, push through. If you get scared and run away, then you may not be a good fit for this job. The other thing is, you may surprise yourself. People don’t know how they will react in an emergency until they’re in an emergency.”