AUSTIN (AP) - One of Austin's first female firefighters is now
the first woman to retire from the department.
She's only 47 years old, but Laura Matau has spent more than 25
of those years with the Austin agency. The department offers
retirement benefits to employees with 20 or more years.
Matau put on her uniform for the last time this weekend at
Station 30 in Northwest Austin.
She is among about 6,100 female professional firefighters around
the country - about 2 percent of the total number of paid
firefighters, according to Women in the Fire Service, a nonprofit
network for female firefighters.
The Austin Fire Department has 40 female firefighters, about 4
percent of the firefighting staff.
Matau faced some resistance early in her career.
In one of the worst incidents she endured, the Austin
American-Statesman reported in Saturday's online edition, a male
colleague threw a spittoon full of spit and chewing tobacco at her.
She simply cleaned up and changed clothes.
"I'm not a violent person," she said. "I wanted to throttle a
few of them, but I would have lost my job."
Over her career, Matau rose above any doubts.
"We didn't cut her any slack," said Charles Bryant, a retired
firefighter who worked with Matau. "I expected her to do the job
or get up and let a man have that job, and she'd done everything
that was expected of her."
While others used brute strength, Matau used her mind to conquer
physical challenges: Rather than pull her 150-pound body over a
6-foot wall used in training, she gripped the top of the wall with
her hands and walked her way over, in time to match the men who
hoisted themselves over.
"Every individual is tested as an individual," she said. "If
they can do the job, they'll be respected."
Bryant, who retired in 1995, was impressed by her work ethic.
Notorious for leaving firefighters behind at the station during
alarms, Bryant wasn't fast enough to elude Matau.
"I tried my damnedest to run off and leave her, but she was
always on the truck and always ready to fight fires," he said. "I
respect her very much, and the fire department's going to miss her.
We all love her, and I hope she has a good retirement."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)