When Corinne Piccardi, 47, a 19-year member of the Cabin John Park, Md., Volunteer Fire Department and a nationally certified firefighter and paramedic, was sworn in as the department’s new fire chief on Jan. 22, the local news media highlighted that she had become the first female volunteer fire chief ever appointed in Montgomery County.
And in a development that some LGBT advocates might consider a positive sign, the media reports made no mention that Piccardi is also the first known lesbian fire chief in the county and possibly in the entire D.C. metropolitan area. Instead, they reported in a nonchalant and matter-of-fact way that she lives in Baltimore with her wife and two daughters.
Piccardi told the Washington Blade in an interview last week that she wasn’t surprised that her sexual orientation and same-sex marriage, which has been known for years at the Cabin John Park Fire Station, wasn’t considered a big deal at the time of her selection as chief.
“Montgomery County as a whole is very good about that,” she said. “You know as an organization they’re very open,” she added referring to the county’s volunteer and career fire departments. “They’re very accepting. And if they give you the opportunity it’s up to you to take it,” she said.
In a press release announcing her appointment as chief, Michael Harting, president of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department’s Board of Directors, called Piccardi “a visionary – a forward thinker.”
Harting added that Piccardi “brings not only a wealth of background and experience to the chief’s position but also respects the heritage and community values of the Cabin John, West Bethesda, and Potomac citizens we serve.”
The press release says Piccardi will oversee “more than 100 active firefighters and emergency medical service, administrative and auxiliary volunteers.”
Cabin John Park is an unincorporated area within Montgomery County located close to the Potomac River between West Bethesda and Potomac. The fire station provides firefighting and emergency medical services to all of those jurisdictions.
Piccardi succeeds James P. Seavey Sr., who has served as chief of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department for 26 years before retiring in December, when Piccardi was named acting chief.
During her swearing-in ceremony as chief, which was held at the fire station, Seavey pinned the official chief’s badge on the full dress uniform Piccardi wore in an action that followed a longstanding tradition at the department. Standing nearby were Piccardi’s wife, Monika, and the couple’s daughters Nicole, 18, and Riley, 8.
Minutes later, Piccardi said Monika Piccardi, Nicole, and Riley placed an official chief’s collar pin on her uniform.
“So my family was up front and center with the transition of this leadership and the formalizing of it and they were part of the ceremony to appoint me as the chief in Cabin John,” she told the Blade.
Piccardi said her role as volunteer chief, like all volunteer firefighters, is a part-time unpaid position. She said she makes her living as a full-time career firefighter-paramedic for the Manchester Fire Department in Carroll County, Md. She also works part-time for the Upperco Volunteer Fire Department in Baltimore County.
It was her role as a volunteer firefighter in Cabin John Park, which began in 1999, that led her to change careers from that of a school teacher to a professional firefighter, she said. A native of Australia, Piccardi said she came to the U.S. as an exchange student in the late 1980s at the University of Texas before deciding to move permanently to the U.S. in the 1990s after graduating from the University of Sydney with a degree in education.
Upon moving to the D.C. area she began teaching at private schools in Potomac and Bethesda before teaching health and physical education for 12 years at Bethesda’s Washington Episcopal School. She became a U.S. citizen in 2013.
“And then I left there to be a full-time mom for a couple of years,” she said, noting that she continued in her role as a volunteer firefighter that she began while working as a teacher.
“And when I decided to go back to work I decided to put my fire qualifications to work and got a job in Carroll County with the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department,” she said. “I’m a paid paramedic and firefighter up there.”
Piccardi said she’s been open about her sexual orientation at work in the various fire departments, especially in Cabin John Park, since she became involved in a relationship with her wife Monika long before the two could legally marry.
“We lived together. We had a commitment ceremony in western Maryland,” she said. “We had members of the fire department there. That was in 2006 long before gay marriage was legal,” Piccardi explained, pointing out that she and Monika considered that ceremony to be equivalent to a marriage. “So yes, she married me and she married the fire department as well.”
She said the two married legally in 2013 in an informal ceremony at their home.
Piccardi also points out that she and her wife and kids have participated in the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department’s longstanding tradition using a fire truck to deliver Christmas gifts to underprivileged children. Family members of firefighters traditionally have participated in this activity.
“So we take Santa Claus around on top of a fire engine during the month of December to the neighborhoods to collect toys for a local children’s home that’s in our area,” she said. “And we deliver those toys on Christmas Eve. And my family has always been involved with that,” said Piccardi, noting that this past Christmas a photo was taken of her wife and two daughters participating in the toy delivery endeavor.
“I’ll be honest,” Piccardi continued. “I don’t go out waving a rainbow flag every time I go somewhere. But it’s part of my life. I don’t hide it. I never have. Cabin John has known about it from the moment she came into my life,” Piccardi said in referring to her wife.
Asked if she had advice for LGBT people who might be considering becoming a firefighter, Piccardi, among other things, said she would tell them not to be discouraged if they encounter expressions of bias.
“I’ve had a number of people tell me I’m not going to succeed, I’m going to fail,” she said. “But they were only one or two people along the road within the organization. Ignore it and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Added Piccardi, “I would say if the opportunity presents itself, take it because the service is changing. They are more and more recognizing diversity of all shapes and sizes is needed for fresh ideas. And it’s a great service. It’s a public service. You are helping people. And you have the opportunity to make an impact. So don’t let one or two people stop you from doing what you want to do.”