By Meghan Daniel for The Island Eye News
Forty-seven years ago, 13-year-old Ann Graham woke in the middle of the night to the scene of a blaze consuming a portion of her hometown of Sullivan’s Island. Many years and many more fires later, Chief Graham is wrapping up a 35-year career with the Isle of Palms Fire Department. She plans to complete a Public Safety Building renovation project and then retire at the end of this year.
Following the fire on Sullivan’s in 1973, Graham’s interest in firefighting snowballed. Conversations with paramedics and firefighters outside the station at her bus stop, coupled with overheard radio calls for emergency teams, piqued her interest in what developed into a long-term career in firefighting and first aid. At age 19, she drove down to the Sullivan’s Island Fire Department and pronounced her intent to sign up as a firefighter. However, her interest was met by skepticism and repeated deterrence.
“First I was told they didn’t need anyone else. Then I was told, ‘well, you have to be able to pick up this five-gallon bucket. Each time a task was changed, I achieved the goal but was repeatedly told no by the previous fire chief,’” Graham recalled.
Eventually, in 1982, with the help of a host of people who went to bat for her, she was voted onto the squad. With the grit and determination particular to the daughter of an Air Force combat controller and a nurse, and the only girl among five siblings, Graham self-assuredly asserted her place among what was, and largely remains, a boys club when she was hired as a full-time firefighter in 1985. She recalled only one incident of a co-worker getting out of line, which she corrected with a quick jab to the gut.
“That was the end of that,” she said matter-of-factly, adding that the close living quarters at the fire station were never an issue.
Although her span of influence has touched both IOP residents and those beyond the reach of Charleston County for 35 years, Graham remains humbly dismissive of her groundbreaking position as a female fire chief – the first in the state of South Carolina.
“I still don’t think it’s a big deal,” she said. “The only thing I wanted to do was be put in a position where I could help people, and nobody could tell me I wasn’t allowed.”
For years, she has felt it only natural to serve in various capacities under the umbrella of civic servitude – first as a firefighter, then as an engineer, followed by promotions to captain, battalion chief and, finally, an appointment to fire chief in 1994. She said of the series of events that led her into her lifelong career: “Right place; right time.”
Over the years, Graham’s leadership has resulted in a host of advancements for the IOP Fire Department. Among the first items she addressed after being appointed fire chief were the city’s beach and water rescue vehicles and protocol, both of which were in dire need of enhancement. Under her leadership, the squad’s equipment went from an unstable V-hull boat, an inflatable boat and a loaner jet ski to a convoy consisting of two jet skis, three all-terrain vehicles, one 20-foot seaworthy boat for search and rescue, one inflatable boat and one flat-bottom shallow-draft boat with a fire pump and lift-assist platform. These are now accompanied by the addition of four-wheel-drive pickup trucks that replaced the cars previously used by the department.
Another major contribution Graham made to the IOP Fire Department was her involvement in upgrading the countywide radio system from analog to digital. During this process, she noticed an issue with the system that resulted in calls being missed throughout the county, certainly a major safety problem. Resolving the problem ended up costing the county more than $20 million, an amount that Graham admitted could have haunted her: “It could’ve cost me my job and my reputation if I had been wrong [about the radios working improperly].”
She added, however, that “at the end of the day, I believe that I put my people first and look after their health and safety, and that’s good enough for me.”
In addition to serving the Isle of Palms and Charleston County over the past three decades, Graham has also served the state and nation through her involvement with an array of organizations, including the South Carolina National Disaster Medical Assistance Team; multiple hurricane relief efforts outside the Isle of Palms; the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary; South Carolina State Guard; Team Rubicon; and Operation Enduring Honor. She is also boat crew, air crew and jet ski certified, participates in the Communications Watch Standard at Station Charleston and is involved with helicopter operations training.
Graham said she would be remiss not to credit Sullivan’s Island Fire Chief Anthony Stith and retired Mount Pleasant Fire Chief Fred Tetor for their enduring support throughout the years. She said of her own legacy: “I truly just want to be remembered for doing the right things for the right reasons. I try to make sure people are safe and put others’ needs in front of my own.”