Corena LeDonne has thoroughly enjoyed the last two decades of her 31-year-career with Chevron Corp. in Richmond, CA. However, during her early years she had a difficult time finding the right job, working as a mail clerk, research librarian, office assistant and laboratory technician.
“It all seemed boring to me,” LeDonne said. A horseback rider in her spare time, she saw her future in a more active career – firefighting.
“I had some girlfriends who were firefighters for Contra Costa County,” she said. “I said ‘I wish I could do something like that but I’m too small.’ They introduced me to a firefighter with their department who was as small as me, even smaller.”
LeDonne’s work as an emergency responder at Chevron Richmond is featured in a three-minute YouTube video posted at youtube.com/watch?v=b3kp3EYw0_A. She visited Brayton Fire Training Field in May to take part in the Chevron corporate fire school.
Even before joining the refinery fire brigade, LeDonne served on the emergency response team at Chevron’s nearby Richmond Technology Center.
“I was already testing areas for confined space and hot work,” she said. “I was also on the heavy rescue team. Once we actually had someone stuck up on a man lift. That was really cool to use our skills we trained for.”
Having qualified as an emergency response technician in her spare time, LeDonne was doing “ride-alongs” with the Richmond Fire Department in anticipation of making a career change. She even adopted a strict health regime to better meet the rigorous physical fitness standards of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District.
“I started working out to get my cardio going,” LeDonne said. “You have to learn to eat right. You also have to learn to work smarter, use the tools in a different way from the men who can basically dead lift whatever they want to move.”
However, Chevron was not through with LeDonne. During a lengthy shutdown at the refinery in 1999, the emergency response team needed extra people. Dan Tydingco, a friend working as a Chevron emergency responder, suggested that she temporarily transfer to the ERT to see if she if she liked it.
“For my first six months I was like a fish out of water,” she said. “It was my first time in a refinery and everything seemed huge.”
One of LeDonne’s horseback riding buddies was the only other woman on the ERT at the time. But that did not last long.
“She told me a lot of things I needed to know,” she said. “But she left to join the Oakland Fire Department. She worked her way up to battalion chief there.”
Even before LeDonne’s probationary period ended, Chevron sent her to Brayton Fire Training Field. Joining the Chevron ERT and making a bi-annual trip to the Texas A&M University fire training facility has provided all the action an adrenaline junkie could ever want, she said. But first she had to overcome a bad case of butterflies on the fire field.
“I was sick to my stomach because I was so nervous,” LeDonne said. “I wanted to do so good because it was all men. You just feel like everyone is looking at you and you are different. It still feels that way.”
Her visit to Brayton in May 2019 for the Chevron corporate fire school marked her tenth pilgrimage to Texas for training.
“A lot of these training props available today were not here when I first arrived,” LeDonne said. “The women did not have their own changing rooms or other facilities back then. The streets were paved in coarse gravel that was hard on the feet. You got caked with this sticky white mud that was all over.”
Today, Brayton has paved streets and women have their own changing rooms. The training field even provides the firefighters with towels to keep themselves dry and cool. The towels are supplied through the Hilton College Station and paid for by Chevron, a corporate fire school staff initiative dating back three years.
“We never had that before,” she said. “Things like that can be important.”
Officially, LeDonne’s job title at the Chevron Richmond refinery is fire inspector. Aside from being a fulltime emergency responder, she is important to the day-to-day operation of the facility. She issues permits for hot work and entering and exiting hazardous spaces.
“We inspect buildings and make sure the exit signs are illuminated and in the right place,” she said. “We make sure all the parent hardware is working properly. For example, we make sure it takes less than 15 pound of pressure to open any door.”
One major accomplishment of her time on the ERT is adapting a 34-foot aluminum Munson boat into a firefighting vessel equipped with a 1,000 gpm pump. It joins a fleet of other small boats maintained by the refinery to deal with marine oil spills.
Outside of work, LeDonne’s immediate family consists of a dog and horse. The fact that she remains the only female on the ERT even today illustrates the problems for women in combining work as an emergency responder with a traditional family life.
“It’s a difficult job for a woman, especially if she has kids and a family because it is organized around 12-hour rotating shifts, ” she said. “And it’s not a clean job. You get dirty. Some of the work we do can be very taxing on the body.”
With retirement looming ahead, LeDonne says her plans for the future beyond Chevron include continuing to be involved in emergency response.
“I want to stay connected to the fire service,” she said. “I enjoy working with my dog and I’d like to do search and rescue work once I retire.”