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1981: Pair of women join all-male Indianapolis Fire Department

Posted at 5:30 AM, Jan 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 05:30:17-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Valarie High and Nancy Sweeney became the second and third women to join the Indianapolis Fire Department on Nov. 3, 1980.

The pair graduated into the ranks in the department’s 54th recruit class in January 1981. The all-male Indianapolis Fire Department was no more.

Former WRTV reporter Sy Jenkins caught up with Valarie High at IFD Station 5 shortly after graduation.

The 24-year-old former computer programmer was cleaning one of the trucks alongside one of her male counterparts.

“A typical woman likes to be a secretary kind of person; I don't like a desk job,” High said. “I’ve just been more physical than that.”

The arrival of the women meant the men at Station 5 lost their TV room. It was converted into living quarters for the women who worked opposite shifts.

The typical schedule for firefighters was 24 hours on, followed by 48 hours off.

When asked about her future at IFD, the sky was the limit for High.

“All the way to the top. I’d like to go for fire chief, be the first woman fire chief. Why not?”

Valarie High on the Indianapolis Fire Department for 30 years before retiring as a captain in 2010. High died in Dec. 2014 at the age of 58.

Nancy Sweeney, now Nancy Rasmussen, was named Rookie of the Year in 1981 and served on the department for 24 years. Rasmussen was the first woman to be named captain as well as the first woman to be named deputy chief.

Byronna Slaughter was the first woman hired into the Indianapolis Fire Department in March 1978. However, Slaughter resigned after less than a year on the job.

As of 2021, women accounted for 61 of the 1,201 sworn personnel in the Indianapolis Fire Department.