When Debra Johnson (“Debbie”) walked into the Briarcliff Volunteer Fire Department with her friend Rachel Leihbacher in August 1982 intending to join as the first female members, William Johnson (“Bill”) didn’t think much of it. They sat down next to him and he talked to them. Soon, chaos ensued amongst members determined to keep these women out of the all-male company. Two men quit because of the perceived intrusion but the women underwent training and quickly proved to be valuable members of the department, running into burning buildings and taking every call they could.
Bill and Debbie became great friends going on calls together and seeing each other at meetings and drills. “I would look forward to seeing her on those calls,” remembers Bill. “By the annual dinner dance in May of 1983, we were dating. We married seven years later.”
Both born and bred in Briarcliff, they only got to know each other when they both joined the fire department. For Bill, a Westchester County police detective, serving the community was in his blood. Both his father Arthur Johnson Jr. and grandfather Arthur Johnson were Briarcliff police chiefs and firefighters. His grandfather’s brother Buck Johnson was the fire chief and his grandfather’s brother Charles Johnson was killed in the line of duty with the Briarcliff police department in 1927.
“My husband is the most amazing man in my life and such a rock star,” says Debbie. “He’s by my side for everything we’ve endured and he’s always doing for me.”
Debbie recently retired from nursing after 36 years at Northern Westchester Hospital, but remains an active volunteer in addition to her private duty nursing work. “I just love making a difference. The fire department gives me a sense of accomplishment and I love going to car accidents and helping the victims out.”
They often respond to calls together. When their two kids were young, they would swap off or Debbie’s mother would watch the kids.
One of Bill’s worst experiences was responding to an accident in the middle of the night while Debbie was working at the hospital and discovering that it was Debbie’s brother, badly injured, in the accident. He remembers showing up at the hospital to tell Debbie.
The couple has seen a lot of tragedy together, particularly in car accidents, and it helps that they can talk about it with each other.
These days, Bill keeps an extra eye out for Debbie when they’re at the scene of an accident. “Responding to auto accidents is not safe. EMS has been hit on calls because of distracted driving,” he says.
It’s pretty clear to me, however, that he always has his eye on his beloved.