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South Portland firefighter dies on duty

News

South Portland firefighter dies on duty

SOUTH PORTLAND — Hundreds of people attended funeral services Tuesday in Biddeford for a South Portland firefighter who died on duty last week. 

Fire Department spokesman Lt. Robb Couture said Debra Cole had a stroke and collapsed while working an overtime shift on June 10 at the Western Avenue fire station. The 40-year-old Lyman resident was the mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 21. 

Firefighters from around New England turned out on Tuesday to honor Cole with a Line of Duty ceremony with pipe-and-drum bands. 

Couture said firefighters and paramedics rushed to Cole's assistance when she collapsed last week and transported her to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where she underwent nearly 11 hours of surgery to relieve a clot in her carotid artery. Cole was pronounced dead at about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 11.

Couture said Cole was an avid equestrian who was active and otherwise healthy.

"Last night was pretty tough," he said Friday. "She had no history of health problems and was non-smoker in really good condition."

Couture said firefighters were given a chance to speak with members of the Critical Incident Stress Team, a group of community members trained to help public safety workers deal with grief and stress following work-related deaths and incidents.  

He said the department brought Cole's family to Central Station on Broadway for food and conversation. "Her family knew how important the Fire Department was to her," he said. 

Cole joined the Fire Department in May 2002. Couture said Cole was also a 10-year veteran of the Goodwins Mills Fire Department, where she was a captain.

"She had a deep background in firefighting and loved it and she was a great paramedic," Couture said. "She was the type of person (firefighters) would want to show up at our house if something happened."

Mayor Tom Blake, who worked for the department for more than 25 years, said he used to work with Cole as part of the Risk Watch program, which teaches elementary school children about fire safety. Cole had a gift for communicating with children, he said.

"As I would be talking about something, she would be behind me at the white board drawing a sketch," Blake said. "If I was talking about a second exit, she would quickly draw a house with two exits. The kids loved it."

Blake said Cole was "a rare breed" – a woman in an otherwise male-dominated profession. Although women commonly volunteer or work part time as firefighters or paramedics, he said only a small percentage of women serve full time, professionally, in both capacities, due to the physical demands of the job. 

"You have to be smart, in shape, aggressive and outgoing," Blake said. "Deb was all of those."

The Line of Duty funeral for Cole was the city's first since Robert Wallingford died while battling a fire at the Portland Welding Co. in 1996.

Several firefighters stood guard over Cole's body until she was laid to rest in Pine Grove Cemetery in West Kennebunk. The funeral procession included an antique fire engine, which carried her casket. An honor guard presented an American flag to the family.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net