The Bellevue Fire Department family announced on Wednesday the passing of one of its beloved members and a fire service pioneer, retired Captain Jeanette Woldseth. Woldseth, the first career female firefighter in Washington state, succumbed to cancer and passed away the afternoon of Feb. 19. She was 64.
“Captain Woldseth was truly a ground-breaker, not only in the Bellevue Fire Department, but within the larger firefighter community,” said Bellevue Interim Fire Chief Todd Dickerboom in a press release. “She paved the way for so many women who came after her. We’re all deeply saddened by this loss. Jeanette was a very talented, wonderful person.”
Woldseth came from a long line of firefighters in her family. Her grandfather served with the Seattle Fire Department from 1913-1946, retiring as a captain. Her father was a volunteer captain with the Bellevue Fire Department having served for twenty-five years; first with King County Fire District No. 14, then with the city of Bellevue.
Before her death, Woldseth recalled discovering her interest in becoming a firefighter when her father asked her younger brother if he was interested in joining the volunteers. She turned to her dad and stated, “You didn’t ask me if I wanted to join the volunteers!” A short time later she came home to find out her father had submitted her application.
Upon joining, she proved herself well up to the task. Woldseth served from 1975-1977 as a volunteer for the department. Then, when the call came to test for career status, she jumped right in.
“We had to drag a charged 100 foot section of two-and-a-half hose 100 feet,” said Bellevue Paramedic Denny Rask who tested alongside her. “Male or female it was a tail kicker. She went first and passed without a problem. Her ability as a Bellevue firefighter was never in question.”
Not everyone was delighted to see the gender boundaries crossed. According to retired Fire Chief Ken McAllister, it was the firefighter’s wives who had the greatest objections.
“Dan Sterling and I went to Station No.3 to meet with the wives as Jeanette was going through drill school and people wondered about accommodations,” he recalled. “A few of the wives gave us an ultimatum; if Jeanette was assigned to the same shift and station as their husband, then their husband was not going to be allowed to come to work.”
But space was made for her and it was room enough to run. Hired on Jan.3, 1977 she became the Washington state’s first female career firefighter. She was promoted to lieutenant Jan. 1, 1981 and she continued her climb through the ranks. Woldseth was promoted to the rank of captain on Oct.1, 1985.
She was also very active with the firefighter’s labor union, IAFF Local #1604, serving as secretary/treasurer during her tenure at the city. Eventually, she became the first member of Local #1604 to be elected (unanimously) as secretary emeritus upon her retirement. According to retired Lieutenant Bruce Ansell, “I guess being first came naturally to her.”
That pioneering spirit served her well as she never wavered from raising an opposing point of view if she felt strongly about something. Ansell credits her strength in that regard during union negotiations.
“It kept our union sharp and less inclined to fall into a dangerous ‘group think’ mentality,” Ansell said. “Jeanette loved the fire service, the Bellevue Fire Department and IAFF Local #1604. She expressed that love through her tireless actions in support of all three.”
Woldseth retired as a captain on July 27, 2002. She was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010. It was stage II breast cancer and she underwent treatment for two years. One year after completing treatment, the cancer came back in 2013. It was uncureable this time; stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
For four years Woldseth was a driving force against the disease. She began to raise money as part of Obliteride. Obliteride is a biking event that occurs each year over an entire weekend and all the proceeds go to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Her friends said she was not a cyclist. She had many friends ride along with her in her training to be sure she was up for the challenge. In her first year of fundraising Woldseth cycled 25 miles. She then went on to complete 50 miles in each of her last three years. She was even signed up for a fifth year and planned to ride in 2017 but cancer had taken its toll. She was unable to participate in the cycling event but still raised nearly $13,000, bringing her grand total amount raised for cancer research to over $51,000.
Woldseth was loved by many. Her service to the city of Bellevue and its residents was remarkable and her legacy in the fire service will last for decades, city officials said.
A celebration of her life is being planned for later this spring. Details will be announced at a later time.