Notre Dame Fire Department welcomes first women firefighters

The University of Notre Dame Fire Department recently welcomed Christi Shibata and Michelle Woolverton as the first full-time women firefighters in the department’s 140-year history.

Christi ShibataChristi Shibata

Shibata, 37, joined the Department in July. A graduate of Clay Fire Academy, Shibata previously worked as a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Petoskey, Michigan, where she is from. She is the sister of Notre Dame Police Chief Keri Kei Shibata.

“It’s been awesome,” Shibata said of the job. “I’m excited about the next steps. There’s so much more to learn and so much more you can do through the fire service other than the basic level training, so I’m excited about those opportunities.”

Woolverton, 42, joined the department in August. A native of South Bend, Woolverton previously worked in Building Services at Notre Dame, where she served as a supervisor. Like Shibata, she is a graduate of Clay Fire Academy.

“I’m 42 years old. I never thought my dream would come true, and it has,” Woolverton said, explaining family responsibilities prevented her from joining the fire service earlier in life.

Firefighter is a technical classification within the Notre Dame Fire Department, reserved for new hires. Shibata and Woolverton perform the same duties as all firefighters. That includes driving the engine and operating the engine pump. Both are certified emergency medical technicians as well.

Michelle WoolvertonMichelle Woolverton

As newly sworn members of the fire service, Shibata and Woolverton join a small but growing number of women firefighters nationwide. According to the National Fire Protection Association, women represent about 7 percent of all firefighters and about 4 percent of career firefighters in the U.S. With the addition of Shibata and Woolverton, women now represent about 11 percent of the Notre Dame Fire Department. Women also serve part-time with the department on an on-call basis, as well as in administration.

Bruce Harrison is chief of the Notre Dame Fire Department.

“We didn’t give these two people an opportunity — they earned the opportunity,” Harrison said of Shibata and Woolverton, describing them as more than qualified for the job in every respect.

He added, “I’m very proud of Notre Dame Fire Department. I’m proud of its past, I’m very proud of the present, and I’m very optimistic about the future. It’s a good place. It’s a good service. And I think Christi and Michelle are going to be good representatives of this fire department as we move into the future.”

Harrison said the transition to a co-ed department has been relatively seamless. The station was built with separate sleeping quarters, stemming from a time when Holy Cross Brothers ran it, and the shared bathroom/shower space locks for privacy. 

The male firefighters have been welcoming to Shibata and Woolverton as well, he said.

Founded in 1879, the Notre Dame Fire Department is the first and oldest University fire department in the nation. The department services three campuses — Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross — and about 15,000 students, faculty and staff. In addition to emergency fire and medical services, the department provides public education, inspection and maintenance services to the Notre Dame community.

Along with the Notre Dame Police Department and local police, fire and emergency medical personnel, the fire department will participate in the University’s annual Blue Mass at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 3 (Thursday) at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., will preside over the Mass, which honors first responders who have died in the line of duty as well as those who serve and protect the public on a daily basis. Rev. Frank Murphy, C.S.C., faculty chaplain, will give the homily. A public reception will follow in the Rotunda of the Main Building.

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Contact: Erin Blasko, assistant director of media relations, 574-631-4127,

Originally published by Erin Blasko at on September 25, 2019.