WHITING | Sharon Warnecke is a woman of firsts.
The Highland native was the first female machinist to serve on the USS Holland (AS-32), a U.S. Navy ship that supports submarines.
She was the first female firefighter at the BP Whiting Refinery, and the only one for 17 years. There's still only two now. She recently became the first female refinery firefighter to serve 20 years at BP.
"She's been first in a lot of areas," BP spokesman Scott Dean said.
Warnecke is now a maintenance planner with refinery-wide responsibilities who can serve as an engineer, or fire truck driver, for the refinery's fire department.
Her father, Eugene Warnecke, who worked at Inland Steel, raised her to believe she could do anything.
Her journey began after graduating high school in 1981 and began working as a waitress at Miner-Dunn Hamburgers on Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland.
The eatery made waitresses wear name tags that identified the year they were hired.
"Another waitress has started there when I was a year old," she said. "I thought, 'Wow, I don't want to be pushing hamburgers for the rest of my life. I want to do something. I want to travel.'"
Warnecke enlisted in the Navy, scored high in mechanical aptitude tests and was trained as a machinist. The job was intense. Warnecke worked on repairs for submarines, including the power plants in nuclear subs.
Top secret clearance was needed to enter certain parts of the vessels, and Warnecke had to be blindfolded and escorted by Marines to some areas, such as when she had to work in a missile bay. She was often chosen to install equipment or make repairs because she could crawl into smaller spaces than her male counterparts.
After her enlistment ended, she planned to kick around her hometown for a while.
Her aunt, Ann Hovan, suggested she get a job at the then-Standard Oil refinery in Whiting where Hovan's husband worked. Warnecke was so fresh out of the military she had to borrow nice clothes from her cousin for the interview.
The company called to say it needed a security guard. She ended up working security for nine years before a maintenance position opened up and she landed that job. She was not the first female machinist there, but was among the first 10.
Knowing she had served in uniform, then-assistant fire chief Dick Wilson approached her about joining the refinery's volunteer fire department.
"Sharon was always a driven and inquisitive individual," he said. "She used to sit and ask questions about the fire department at every opportunity. We'd discuss calls and tactics and she would soak it all up like a sponge. I finally realized that she needed to join the department and was going to be a solid asset."
The massive refinery – 1,400 acres along Lake Michigan's south shore – is like a self-contained city. About 2,000 people work at the site, which includes its own fire department. The plant has more than 400,000 gallons of highly flammable substances at any given time.
Fires are now rare at the refinery because of technology and safety procedures, Dean said. But when Warnecke started, there were at least 200 fire calls a year.
"I still remember rolling up to my first major fire at night," she said. "I was so scared. I thought, 'Oh my goodness, what have I gotten into?' But with more training and development, I got to know what to do and how to do it. With each training session, with each call, I learned more."
She was wide-eyed at her first few fires. The more calls she went on, the more confidence she gained in herself and her fellow firefighters.
"You work in concert with the person next to you. We train so much that you find your groove, and it's like a well-orchestrated concert."
Warnecke is a strong person who has made major contributions to the department over the years, Wilson said.
"I remember one call, we were short-staffed and I was useless after accidentally injuring myself," he said. "I wanted to, and tried to help, but Sharon wouldn't have it, so there I sat on the back of the truck as this woman pulled out about 500-feet of 5-inch line by herself. That's no easy task for one person alone but she did it. She really made me proud that day and it's that type of intestinal fortitude that she possesses."
Like all volunteer firefighters, Warnecke was on call 24/7, and often was roused out of bed at 2 a.m. to race down Indianapolis Boulevard.
The work could be grueling. In 1994, during a cold spell not unlike this winter's polar vortex, pipes froze and thawed at the refinery, causing leaks. The leaking pipes sparked three major fires within 24 hours.
"I was exhausted," she said. "That was 24 hours of running on pure adrenaline. We didn't have time to eat. Just when we got the trucks back in service order and were about to go home, the second call came out."
Warnecke was most gratified when she could serve as a role model, such as when she marches during Highland's Fourth of July parade.
She remembers the 2002 parade, when they proceeded in silence to honor the firefighters who died during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She was driving the fire truck and heard little girls along the route excitedly telling their mothers a girl was driving the fire truck.
Every year, she visits local schools. The kids pepper her with questions, like how much water her fire truck can hold and how hard it is to drive. She lets them try on her gear.
"It's a huge responsibility," she said. "One of the reasons I do this is for the women behind me. When we go to the schools for Fire Prevention Week, I like to show the little ones that anybody can do anything. My father raised me that I could do anything I wanted and nobody was going to hold me back, and I want to show other young woman that."