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Fire department veteran blazes trail
Administrative chief becomes citys first ranking woman
Debbie Truelove is the administrative chief for the Gainesville Fire Department. - photo by Tom Reed
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Debbie Truelove knew she had a lot to live up to when she went to the Georgia Fire Academy in 1997.

She was told no one from the Gainesville Fire Department had ever gone to the training center in Forsyth and failed. Furthermore, Truelove was the first woman from the city’s fire department to ever try. And she wasn’t even interested in riding fire trucks or battling blazes. She enrolled in the training to earn an administrative rank after joining the department’s support staff seven years earlier.

"I was scared to death," Truelove recalled this week. "I knew I had to go down there and do good."

Truelove found a way in borrowed boots and turnout gear, even when she had never before climbed a ladder to a rooftop. Her certification earned her status as the first ranking woman in the department’s 100-plus year history.

"I came back black and blue, but I did it," she said. "I had conquered my fear and was ready to do whatever I needed to do. I think it meant a lot to the guys I worked with. Not only did I know what the equipment was, but I knew how to use it. I could speak the language."

Truelove is the Gainesville Fire Department’s administrative chief, reporting directly to the fire chief on a wide range of matters, from personnel and budgeting to inventory, fire hydrant checks and standards compliance. In the crowded public safety building, scheduled for demolition next year, she works out of an office that doubles as a storage room, sharing space with rolls of firehose and stacks of plastic bins filled with department-issue sweatshirts.

A Gainesville resident since 1973, Truelove joined the department 19 years ago as an administrative secretary for then-fire chief David Chapman. By 1997, she had moved up to the technical services division, and had to complete fire academy training to join the department’s ranking structure.

She cites Deputy Chief Lawrence Floyd as a mentor and among her biggest supporters at the time.

"He sat me down before I left and told me I had to do what I had to do," she said. "I had a lot of firefighters who really embraced me and helped me succeed."

Truelove saw that support again when she had a bout with cancer in 2008 that forced her out of work for seven months.

When she returned, "they had a surprise party for me, and made me cry," she said.

"During the time I was out, everybody was so good to me," she said. "Even people I didn’t know that well were wonderful."

"They’re my family," said Truelove, who has her own family with husband Chris and grown daughters Hillary and Megan. "These are my brothers."

Truelove is looking forward to quarters with more breathing room when the antiquated headquarters is finally vacated. But she’ll probably look back wistfully, as well.

"It’s bittersweet," she said. "I’ve been in this building a long time. There’s going to be a lot of memories falling when this building falls. I think it will be emotional."

Much of the memories come from people working and living in such close quarters, from the squabbles to the pranks.

"We play but we work," she said. "There’s just a very unique camaraderie that goes on here."