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Detroit — A pair of firsts were honored Thursday: the first African-American female fire engine driver and the first African-American female police underwater recovery team member were named the Women of the Year for Detroit's fire and police departments.

Verdine Day, a 33-year fire engine operator, and Sandra Whitfield, an 11-year police officer, received the recognition at the Detroit Public Safety Foundation's sixth annual Women in Blue event, a fundraiser to support training, technology, equipment, community outreach and wellness for the police and fire departments.

"Our diversity makes us stronger," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said at the MGM Grand Casino Hotel, adding the city's force is a national leader with women representing 25 percent of its members. "We honor you for all you have done, for all you do to protect and serve. You lead by example with your creativity and intelligence to push boundaries and define what it means to be a woman in blue."

Day and Whitfield were among 20 first responders the event celebrated. The honorees included Detroit's first female bomb squad member and first female police honor guard member.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in a keynote address said honoring women who defy odds in a male-dominated field is important.

"Every moment, there are things we may not do because we feel as women there are things we are not capable of because we haven’t seen somebody else do it," Benson said. "But know how important it is that you do stand up and take that opportunity, take that chance to define what’s possible for yourself."

Day's and Whitfield's stories prove just that.

"I have had so much joy over the past 33 years working side by side with people I respect," said Day, who will retire later this year when she turns 60. "I feel so proud to help people who can't help themselves, to protect life and property."

Early in her career, Sydney Puricelli, second deputy fire commissioner, said Day, the first female to serve on the Detroit Fire Fighter Association's board who sat opposite her at the negotiating table, taught her to make a deal and to do so in a respectful way.

"And she did all of that even before I learned she was a firefighter," Puricelli said.

Day had no intentions of becoming a firefighter, she said, until one day she walked by the local fire station. A fireman called out to her to join.

"Who? Me?" Day said. "I didn't know there were women firefighters."

On a regular basis, Day said she works with four or five other women, though her team mostly consists of men. Her involvement led her husband, nephew and grandson to apply to join the department. And she gets a kick out of making appearances at schools in full gear, surprising the students with what she does.

"If you have a passion for helping people," Day said, "this is the best job ever."

Whitfield's aunt, who worked in the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, along with other strong women in her family inspired her to go into law enforcement.

"They showed me great leadership," Whitfield said. "I know I was called to serve, and that's what I wanted to be able to do."

She began on the underwater recovery team this year after a full year of dive and operations training, a natural step following 10 years working as a lifeguard with the recreation department. Her unit is charged with searching the Detroit River, pulling out weapons and, in some cases, bodies.

"It's like a whole different world under there," Whitfield said. "It's nice to be able to give families that closure."

The event also honored the late retired police Sgt. Eren Stephens, who died Monday. Craig said the department is looking to name a new office for its peer support unit after her because of her involvement in it.

"She epitomized what we define as love, and it crossed racial lines and gender lines," he said. "She really is someone that we should follow, her beacon of light."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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