Ching Mei Wu always knew a role in public service was in her future. Her father was a public servant in Taiwan and encouraged her to work in city government — so “you can contribute to your society,” he said. A firefighter in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, Wu came to Clark University to earn her Master of Public Administration from the School of Professional Studies, because of its academic reputation and high ranking. She moved her husband and two small children with her. “When my kids grow up, I want them to come back here to go to school,” she says. “It’s so important to get different points of view from different countries.”
Wu’s adviser, Mary Piecewicz, whose own father was a firefighter, thought it would be beneficial for Wu to partner with the Worcester Fire Department on an independent study project, comparing the fire safety processes of the two countries.
The independent study gave her “practical knowledge and experience not available in Taiwan,” Wu says, with the added benefit of a friendship with Jaclyn Bouvier, the Worcester Fire Department’s first female fire engineer. The two bonded over a common love of public service and the difficulties of being female in a traditionally male profession.
Working together, the two identified operational and structural differences between the fire safety procedures of their respective countries and found ways to improve processes. For instance, Worcester requires hard copies of submittals and plans, but materials can be uploaded online in Taipei, which saves time and resources. And in Worcester, outside companies perform fire inspections and notify property owners of deficiencies, while the Taipei City Fire Department performs all inspections and assumes liability for any problems that may arise.
Taipei also has a large staff of well-trained firefighters who educate the public on fire safety, but the Worcester department has only two employees dedicated to public education. As part of her MPA work, Wu has taken a summer internship with the Worcester Fire Department, focused on the city’s public safety and community risk reduction education efforts.
The department is installing free SmartBurners in residents’ homes; the devices keep stove burners from reaching temperatures that ignite most cooking oils and other household items. Wu believes this kind of public safety outreach is ideally suited for Taipei and is eager to share the results of the Worcester initiative with her home city.
In Taipei, many women work in the fire department, while Worcester currently has only eight female firefighters – three in the office and five on the trucks. “Fire departments still need women, especially in the prevention and public education part,” Wu insists. “Then, if they have an interest, they have the opportunity to work on a fire truck.”
Wu and Bouvier discovered that they face similar professional challenges. Female firefighters must have a thick skin, Bouvier says. “Be confident in yourself and your abilities. You can’t back down when you know you are right.” Both women see positive changes in both countries as fire departments incorporate and use female firefighters’ skills in effective ways.
Wu has been a firefighter for more than 10 years. The training in Taiwan is tough for those who want to work on the trucks, she says. “I had a year of training and waking up at 5:30 to run; it was like being a soldier. I responded to fires and handled the machines and the pumps and learned how to save someone’s life.”
She stopped working on the trucks when she had a child, but may go back to them when her children are older. Female firefighters are more common in Taiwan than in the U.S., but there are limitations. Wu noted that in Taiwan women have higher salaries and more days off if they do not get married and have children.
Wu will return to Taipei once she receives her master’s degree and when her children finish the school year in 2020, and she is interested in a public-education career. She is glad she chose Clark for her graduate studies because the faculty “cares about what I need, and gives personal feedback to help put you in the right place to get the right knowledge.”
Working with the Worcester Fire Department, and finding a kindred spirit among the firefighting corps, was an added bonus. The experience, she explains, gave her a “great chance to study and learn from another culture’s approach to fire prevention.”