Connecticut's Latina Firefighters Show They Have What It Takes

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Vega is the second Latina the 276-person Bridgeport Fire Department has ever hired.

 
Bill Sarno/CTLatinoNews.com
For Sheilyan Vega, it is all in a days work to drive a 21-ton pumper truck loaded with 500 gallons of water as it thunders through Bridgeport’s East Side, lights flashing and its bell and siren vociferously commanding that traffic make way for what may be a life or death mission.
While Vega wants to get the big red rig to the emergency call quickly, her priority is to drive with due diligence, she said. “I need to get the guys to the call in a safe manner” is how the Puerto Rico born wife and mother sums up one of her priorities as the first female in the department promoted to pumper engineer.
This type of commitment and professionalism that Vega has displayed in her ten years as a firefighter has earned her the respect of her community and  colleagues. “Sheilyan Vega adds a dimension to the department that we appreciate and utilize all the time,” said Lance Edwards, deputy chief executive officer. “She brings dedication and passion to the job every day.”
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Bridgeport’s Sheilyan Vega, her commander says, is a role model for all.

Edwards describes  Vega as “a great role model for women, especially women of color.” At the same time, the deputy chief states that “she would be the first to tell you that hard work is what put her in this position, not being a woman.”
Vega’s daily routine, beyond being an emergency first responder, includes duties such as equipment upkeep, safety inspections, training and other activities that are typical for paid firefighters. But what remains far from routine is for fire departments to employ women, especially Latinas. In New York City, the nation’s largest fire department, less than one percent of the firefighters are women and only a couple are Latinas. However, some departments such as San Antonio and Chicago now employ several dozen Hispanic women.
In Connecticut, Hispanic women have made inroads in various emergency service occupations including police work and serving as EMT, but only a handful are paid firefighters. Vega is only the second Latina the 276-person Bridgeport Fire Department has ever hired, the first already is retired.
Currently, the BFD has nine women and a couple more are in training, Vega said. For now, however, she is the lone female assigned to Engine 10. Based on Boston Avenue, this company covers the heavily Hispanic East Side, an area about which Vega is well acquainted and where she is well known, having grown up in this neighborhood after she moved to Bridgeport from Puerto Rico as an 11-year-old.
Another Connecticut city where Latinas work as firefighters is Hartford. The state’s capital city has a long history of diversity, especially under Chief John Stewart Jr., who in 1980 became one of the first African-Americans the head a fire department in New England.
During his 12-year tenure, Stewart encouraged the hiring of more blacks and Hispanics, as well as bringing on board HFD’s first two first women in 1982. One of these pioneers was the department’s first Latina, Maria Ortiz, who is now retired.
Recently, the Hartford Courant reported that the 300-person department had 15 female firefighters and that this five percent representation is the highest for Connecticut’s major cities and exceeds the national average for career firefighters, which is 3.8 percent according to the National Fire Protection Association.
As for Latinas, Olga Rivera, who joined the department five years ago, said “there are only two of us” identified as Hispanic working as Hartford firefighters, although she adds there are other women who have biracial backgrounds.
The local Society of Latin American Firefighters, as of last year, included four women among its 90 members, according to Edward Cesares, Jr., who retired three years ago after serving as the city’s first Latino fire chief.
Rivera works at the city’s Park Street Fire Station and is the only woman assigned to Engine 8. This company rotates its truck duties so that on her 24-hour shift she may work the pipe (a firefighter would never call it a hose), have hydrant responsibility or operate the pump. Rivera, who is a Hartford native, also gets to drive the pumper occasionally.
The job is very hands on and physical, but it is rewarding, Rivera said. She especially appreciates her role in helping the community. “I developed a different kind of love, respect for the public,” she said.
While she did not become a firefighter until the age of 35, having been an early childhood educator and then a full-time parent for several years, she now observes, “I was born to be a firefighter.”
For Vega, the path that lead to becoming a firefighter began at the age of 7, when she saw her father, who was a police officer in Puerto Rico, suffer a fatal heart attack while at home. “I remember the police and fire department coming to our house and felt great relief that they were there,” she said. At that point, she decided that she wanted to be in a profession that helps people.
After high school, Vega earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. She applied for jobs with both the local police and fire departments and jumped at the opportunity when she got the call from the latter. “This is what I want to do,” she said, although she had to wait several years for training at the state fire academy due to the city’s budget constraints.
Vega considers her career choice to be among the best decisions she has ever made. She enjoys serving the community and knowing that when she responds to a fire she has the training “that can make a difference and can save a life.”
The Bridgeport firefighter, who is married and has a 22-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old stepson, also likes the camaraderie and sense of “family” she finds at the fire station. “We have a good shift and are pretty tight,” she said. This includes parties and trips to New York City where the crew from Engine No. 10 likes to visit a favorite Irish pub.
Historically, access to careers in firefighting for minorities and females has been limited and even resisted in some cities, including New York City, which after losing a minority hiring lawsuit, revised its testing and appointed a $125,000 diversity director two years ago.  
Although, the number of female firefighters in the United States has doubled since Ortiz joined the Hartford department,  the hiring of Hispanic women varies even among cities with large Latino populations.
Among the least gender diverse of the nation’s major fire departments is the New York Fire Department which on Sept. 11, 2001 set a high standard for bravery and whose firefighters are idolized by Vega. Two years ago, NYFD only had 42 women among its 10,500 firefighters. As of May, this total reached a record 52, including a couple of Hispanic women.
Chicago, which has the nation’s fourth largest fire department, includes 61 Latinas among its more than 5,100 employees. This number consists of 27 EMTS, 20 firefighters and 14 civilians.
In San Antonio, where more than 800,000 Hispanics make up more than 61 percent of the population, the Fire Department has about 1,800 uniformed and civilian employees with more than half being Hispanic and about 14 percent being female. Of the department’s 1,654 firefighters, as of August 31, 22 are Latinas including one who is serving as deputy chief.
Orlando, Florida has been the center of a major influx of Latinos to Central Florida and this group now amounts to at least 25 percent of the city’s population. Current figures were not readily available but in 2006, the Orlando Fire Department had 50 Latino men and three Latino women. Orange County, which surrounds that city and has a larger department, had about 120 Latino firefighters, with 13 being female.
On the other hand, New Haven which has employs about 50 Hispanic firefighers just last year hired its first Latina, Yaniris Cardona, who is a native of Puerto Rico and has a background in college athletics.
In Bridgeport, Vega and has been assigned to the BFD recruitment team. In talking to girls, who are impressed to see a fire truck drive up to their school with a woman at the wheel, she tries to “plant the seed” that they are capable of being firefighters. “I did it, they can do it,” she said.
In addition to visiting schools, Vega is also targeting gyms where the women are more likely to be fit. Still, she admits, “It is hard to find women interested in the job.”
Rivera also does some recruiting, including spreading the word recently that the city was accepting applications of firefighting jobs. She also serves as a role model for young girls in the Park Street neighborhood who ask questions about her work. “I keep up with a couple on social media,” she said.
The Hartford firefighter said she tells young women about the importance of her job’s benefits package, which she said currently includes excellent health and dental coverage. Moreover, she said, “You earn good money and the job takes care of you when you retire.”
While it is a challenge to recruit Latinas into firefighting there are signs that there is some interest in this career. New London does not have any female firefighter that identify as Hispanic, but during the city’s last recruitment for non-certified firefighters, two female applicants self-identified as Hispanic, according to Tina Ann Collins, the city’s personnel administrator. However, neither applicant was  successful during the written examination.
To a large extent, Rivera was recruited to become a firefighter. “I was at the right place at the right time,” she said.
Six years ago, she moved with her three young children from East Hartford back to Hartford and had gone to city hall to file some paperwork with social services. The city was hiring for the fire department and she met a fire captain who suggested that she apply. He “kept on it,” she recalls, and convinced her that the work schedule, 24 hours on and 72 hours off, would work well with her parenting.
After, five years with the department, she acknowledges that this schedule very well with her child care needs and also appreciated the pay and benefits. “I hit the lottery when I got onto this job,” she said.
The hours that firefighters work vary from department to department, but 24 hours on duty with two or three days off is common. Consequently, the firefighters regularly eat together and during permissible sleep periods overnight utilize a sleeping room that in the past were not set up for gender segregation.
Vega, who was already for more than a year a firefighter when she got married. Consequently, she said, her husband learned to accept her scheduling and that on work days she would take her meals with the guys and even sleep at the station.
Essentially, Vega has two roles. “On the job I am one of a group, at home I am a mom and wife,” she said. Moreover, off duty, she prefers that her husband do the driving.
In the past, the tough physical requirements have discouraged many woman from seeking work as firefighters, but recently the New York City department and others have modified their testing.
Both Vega and Rivera work out at gyms frequently to keep fit. At the same time, when a situation might require strength, Vega says, she relies what she has learned, “there is a way to do the same task differently.” What is important, she said, is “that you know how to put out a fire.”
Every firefighter brings something special to the job, Vega said, and even being smaller can be an asset. When her unit was called upon to deal with a flooded basement, she recalled, “someone had to go through a small window and I was the only who could do it.”
Another plus that both Latinas bring to the job is their ability to speak Spanish, with Vega having spent much of her childhood in Puerto Rico and Rivera growing up in Hartford in a Spanish-speaking household with a Connecticut-educated father who was bilingual and a Puerto Rico-born mother who was more comfortable speaking the language of her homeland. 
Vega said that she often is called from her rig to translate as crew members talk to Hispanic residents at an emergency scene. “I can see their sigh of relief when there is someone there to speak Spanish,” she said.
Vega said her company had some shirts with the Spanish word for firefighter, “bombero,” on back. She said this sends a reassuring message to a community with so many Latinos.
The Bridgeport firefighter said she knew that coming into the department she was joining what essentially was a “boys club.” However, she has noticed that the firefighters do tone down their occasional bawdy banter when she is around and that thanks to “great officers” a respectful bond developed. “The guys treat me like a little sister,” she said.
Both Vega and Rivera said the fire stations have been modified or rebuilt to accommodate their need for privacy. The dormitories, Rivera said, had just been open areas but now partitions have been added to provide some privacy.
Vega said she had requested assignment to the East Side fire station, but she had to work elsewhere, even as a seasick-prone member of the harbor unit, until the city build a new firehouse on Boston Avenue that has female quarters.
In terms of gender stereotyping, if anyone suggests that Vega cook or clean the station because she is a woman, she quickly snaps, “I am not your mother, I am not your wife.” Moreover, if a regular cooks is not there when she is hungry, she said, “I reach for the takeout menu.”
However, there has been at least one instance where being a woman and a mother put her in position to perform a special task and produced one of her best moments as a firefighter.
When Vega, early in career, was stationed on the west side of Bridgeport, there was a call for a child birth. When she arrived at the apartment there was already some young male firefighters on the scene who “were in a state of shock.” She added that “seeing their faces was priceless.”
Vega not only helped deliver the baby safely, a few days later the mother invited the firefighters back to the apartment to see her newborn girl. “That was awesome,” Vega said with pride.
Rivera, who also has helped male colleagues deliver a baby, said she has never experienced “any disrespect from a colleague.” When she started five years ago at the North End fire station, every shift had a female. “The guys were already adjusted to having a female on the job,” she said.
Both firefighters accept that there job can have its difficult times. “You see so much at accidents and fires that can be draining,” Vega said.
Rivera recalls her worst moment was responding to a call involving a suicide. For Vega, a crucial moment came in 2010 when two local firefighters perished working a house fire. For the first time, she said, she paused to think whether this was the right profession for her.
Both women have endured on-the-job injuries, with Vega having one suffered second degree burns on her calves which kept her out of work three months.
Both women said that the element of danger is always at the back of a firefighter’s mind, but they don’t dwell on it. “You are going into (a fire situation) to do a job and you focus on your responsibility,” Rivera said.  
What reduces the anxiety, the firefighters, said is that they are well trained and trust that their co-workers have their back when they go into a burning building. “We have a rule,” Rivera said, “two in, two out.”
 As first responders, Vega said, they are well-schooled and equipped for emergencies whether it be a structure fire or someone having breathing difficulties. “I don’t wish for fires, but if there is one I would like to be there. This is what I signed up to do and I am trained to do,” Vega said.
 One of Rivera’s most memorable work experiences was the first time she was assigned to drive the truck.  “We caught a fire and I had to chill out, deal with the pressure and be able to put it together,” she said. “Everything went smoothly” and the best part was that after the call was done, she said, “a veteran guy gave me a pat on the shoulder.”
 That was one of her best days as a firefighter, she said.
 

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