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Trailblazing fire fighter, labor leader Theresa Purtell dies

SEATTLE (Jan. 9, 2024) — Retired Seattle fire fighter and longtime labor activist Theresa Purtell passed away on Jan. 1.

Purtell was hired by the Seattle Fire Department in 1980 and worked as a Fire Fighter on Ladder 7, a Dispatcher at the Fire Alarm Center, and ultimately retired in 2015 as the Driver of Engine 26 with more than 35 years of service.

Throughout her career in the fire service, Theresa Purtell was active in IAFF Local 27 and continued to serve the labor movement after her retirement from the SFD. She served as a member of the Local 27 Executive Board for 13 years and as the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters (WSCFF) District 11 Representative for 17 years. She also worked closely with MLK Labor and the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO (WSLC).

“During her time with the Seattle Fire Department, Theresa exemplified commitment and service,” reads IAFF 27’s announcement of her passing. “She did her job well and made great contributions to support fire fighter safety. In addition, she was a trailblazer, constantly breaking down barriers and opening doors for the next generation of women leaders in the fire service and in the labor movement. Oftentimes, this came at great personal cost — but Theresa regularly demonstrated courage in the face of adversity and resistance.”

Theresa Purtell receives the Elsie Schrader Award at the 2019 WSLC Convention.

In 2019, Purtell was presented with the WSLC’s Elsie Schrader Award recognizing the advancement of women in leadership and for activism on behalf of women within the labor movement. (See TVW coverage of the award presentation.)

“Terry was a trailblazer and tireless advocate for women in labor and in her community,” wrote WSLC President April Sims. “She was generous to a fault and always honest with her feedback. She was my sister-in-labor, my neighbor, and an adopted member of the Sims family. She will be missed. Rest in Power, Terry.”

Theresa Purtell and April Sims

Purtell is survived by her sister Denise Purtell Woodham and her nephew Jason Louderback. Memorial services have not yet been announced.

At the request of her family and to honor Theresa Purtell, donations are being collected in her name to support Camp Blaze. Theresa was passionate about advancing the careers of women in the fire service, and was devoted to Camp Blaze, a program developed more than 20 years ago to empower, inspire, and support strong women leaders by providing a biannual, free camp where young women experience what a career in the fire service is like.

Donations can be made online here. The WSCFF Benevolent Fund is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation created to provide aid to fire fighters and their families in times of need. TIN: 91-1689140

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