W.Pa. spouses serve their communities together as firefighters
Lea and Alex Frye seldom respond together when the Pleasant Unity Fire Department answers an emergency call. The volunteers' schedules often don't mesh since they work different shifts at their paying jobs and are raising a 2-year-old daughter, Molly.
When the Fryes held their wedding reception at the fire hall Sept. 28, 2013, it was the first known instance in the department of two active members tying the knot. It was “unheard of as far as we knew,” Lea said.
Alex pointed out, “There weren't a lot of females in the fire service. There's more now.”
“We didn't get along at first,” Lea, 30, admitted, recalling how the couple met in 2010 in Greensburg as fellow trainees attending a course for new firefighters.
She felt she was at a disadvantage because of her short stature and her gender. But, she said, her future husband “wouldn't help me with anything. He just kept telling me I could do it myself.
“The most physically challenging was anything with air masks because they're so heavy and bulky. I've adjusted better to it now.”
The pair became an item after Alex decided he “kinda“ liked Lea and asked her to join a group of friends at a restaurant. Alex, 34, switched in March 2012 from serving with the Greensburg Fire Department to serving with Pleasant Unity's.
Any spouse worries for a loved one who is headed into danger to battle a fire, but the dynamic is a little different when both partners in a marriage are volunteers and know firsthand what the other may encounter.
“I still worry, but not as much — because I usually know what's going on,” said Lea, who uses an app on her phone to monitor fire calls when she can't join the response.
“I try not to think about it,” said Alex, who is a captain. “I can listen, too, because I have a radio.”
Lea “really panicked” on one occasion, when both spouses donned air masks and entered a burning home on Marguerite Road in Unity. Lea exited first when her mask malfunctioned and began to worry when her husband remained inside much longer.
“I knew he had to be getting low on air, so I made them go in and get him,” she said.
Alex noted his oxygen supply was far from depleted. “I still had half a tank,” he said.
Their daughter's arrival has created the biggest challenges for the Fryes as they strive to balance work and family responsibilities with their commitment to the Pleasant Unity department, which includes Lea serving as secretary and Alex as financial secretary.
Lea's love of firefighting, and the “adrenaline rush” it provides, prompted her to respond to calls into her ninth month of pregnancy.
But, she said, under doctor's orders, “I wasn't allowed to work any power tools or go into burning buildings.
“There was a point in time when I could no longer get my boots on. I wouldn't go far from the truck. I wasn't able to do much but direct traffic and be a gofer, and I was a slow gofer.”
“As long as she followed what the doctor told her, I didn't care,” Alex said.
Lea had been a lieutenant with the fire department. But, with a young daughter to care for, she's no longer able to respond to emergencies as frequently as is required of a line officer.
“I still make a call here and there, but not like I used to,” she said. “If we have more kids, I'll probably give up my secretary position.”
Doug and Tawnia Nixon of Fairfield, who were married Sept. 8, 1990, are both members of that township's volunteer fire company.
It's just one of the common responsibilities that keep the couple together much of the time. They both work at the family's auto repair garage, have two children — Douglas Jr., 25, who lives in Morgantown, W.Va., and Sophia, 12 — and have multiple roles with the fire department, including helping with fundraisers.
Doug, 53, is a lieutenant and engineer. Tawnia, 46, is the company's treasurer and runs a notary business. They've answered fire calls ranging from rescuing a deer in a swimming pool to battling a fire that burned the home of a friend and member of the department's auxiliary unit.
“It's a different role from being husband and wife,” Tawnia said of an emergency response. “The roles go to doing what's right for the situation.”
When Tawnia isn't needed for more pressing matters, she gets out a camera to document fellow volunteers' efforts.
“We use it for our own training and critique of what we could have done better,” Doug explained.
While both spouses have been progressing steadily through firefighter training, Tawnia has no desire to pursue the final phase — entering a burning building. “It might be too much for me. I'm content to be outside working,” she said.
Doug is happy about that. “No prejudice against female firefighters,” he said. “I'm not saying that they can't do it, but it's not something I would feel comfortable having my wife do. It's very dangerous, and it's very physical.”
The Nixons' son previously was on the department's roster, and it wouldn't surprise the couple if their daughter, who often helps around the fire hall, decides to join when she is older.
“We have a few ladies in the company, and she looks up to them,” Tawnia said. “It's like one big family.”
“I think it's really brought us together closer, the thought that we know we're doing something for the community,” Doug said of the couple's shared volunteerism.
Tawnia noted the frequent togetherness they enjoy might be too much for some spouses.
“It's amazing how well we do,” she said. “We work in the same building, and we enjoy the same things. I don't think a lot of relationships would last like that.
“You have to have a sense of humor.”