Adding women to the ranks of firefighters has been a slow and often difficult process, but a diverse group of female fighters in Contra Costa County say it's been well worthwhile.
Battalion Chief Sidney Jackett and engineer Amy Miller of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, firefighters Maria Castellanos and Shawnay Tarquinio of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District and engineer Theresa Vouchilas of the Rodeo-Hercules Fire Protection District spoke in an interview about the challenges and rewards of their front-line jobs. They strongly encouraged other women to follow in their footsteps.
Why did the women choose the fire service in the first place, entering a profession rife with nontraditional hours, mental and emotional stress, and potentially life-endangering emergency calls daily?
"When I was little, my sister was bitten by a dog," said Vouchilas, 31, now seven years with Rodeo-Hercules Fire. "The firefighter saved her life. That's what I wanted to do."
Castellanos, 29, grew up around the corner from a fire station and loved watching the crews at work.
"They always looked like they were having fun. I saw how fired up they were about their jobs and it got me fired up," she said. "That's when I knew I was going to be a firefighter."
As she had never met a female firefighter, "let alone one my size," the 5-foot-2 Tarquinio never felt that firefighting was a career she could relate to.
"But the job description? That I could definitely relate to," she said, two years with San Ramon Valley Fire, and now six-months pregnant. In January, she was assigned to lighter administrative and medical tasks, and hopes to return to active duty two months after her child's birth.
The women spoke freely of the challenges they face.
Tarquinio, 30, worried that she would struggle to overcome the physical challenges.
"It also took time to grasp the military environment," she said.
"When I was working in Antioch, a good night's sleep was if you could catch four hours straight," said Jackett. Fire crews typically work 48 consecutive hours, followed by four days off.
But no challenge matched the unimaginable shock Miller, 44, experienced in 2007 -- her fourth year with Contra Costa County Fire Protection District.
"I was going off shift, and I told the crew I would see them the next day. When I came in to relieve them in the morning, I was told the captain and a firefighter had been killed," Miller recalled.
The firefighters died trying to save a couple inside a burning house in San Pablo; they are the only firefighter incident-related deaths in district history.
The frustrations of some older female firefighters, such as being forced to run extra flights of stairs laden with ladders and hoses, or being shunned by male firefighters, were barely mentioned by the group.
"Back then, if someone said Sidney was a great firefighter, some of the older people had to see it for themselves," said Jackett, 41, a 19-year Contra Costa County Fire Protection District veteran. "But most of those people are gone now."
The women said that today's challenges did not include hazing or harassment.
"I was the first female firefighter in the district. The guys had more of a challenge than I did," Vouchilas said.
Instead, the women acknowledged the mental and emotional stresses of the job.
A 2018 fire service survey conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters and nbcnewyork.com found that 65 percent of the respondents struggled with memories of difficult calls, and 59 percent had family or relationship problems as a result of their jobs. Substance abuse issues were experienced by 27 percent, while 19 percent had thoughts of suicide.
"We're getting more responsible about our mental health and I am glad that people lean on each other," Miller said.
Jackett agreed. "People are willing to call and ask for help. That's not something that would have been done 20 years ago," she said.
The battalion chief said she was "super proud" to have been part of the district's critical incident stress management team, an intervention group designed to help firefighters deal with traumatic events. And she said the team has made progress.
"Over three-quarters of our people admit that the job affects them in some way," Jackett said.
But none of these issues detract from the pride the women feel about the fire service; in fact, they relish the opportunity to mentor and to serve as role models.
"People with young daughters see me and say, 'Wow, my daughter wants to be a firefighter too. You are exactly who she wants to be!'" said Castellanos, nearly two years into her San Ramon Valley Fire career. "It's great for young girls to see me, and that I can be their role model."
Recent data from Contra Costa County fire agencies shows that out of 706 career firefighters, 28 are women, almost exactly at the national average of 4 percent. The women interviewed for this article want to see that percentage grow and shared advice for those who seek to join the industry.
"Train a lot. Lift weights. Get strong. Be physically fit, and be assertive. You can do this if you put in the time and effort," Castellanos said.
Vouchilas, a sports star in high school, spoke just as passionately.
"If your heart is in it, make it happen. Don't let anyone tell you that you cannot," she said, while Jackett focused on the excitement of the job duties themselves.
"If you don't want to do the same thing every day, and if you want to show up for work and have no idea what's going to happen, this career is right for you," she said.
"A career in the fire service will push you further than you may realize you are capable of. And it will take work, patience and sacrifice," Tarquinio said. "But it will be your most rewarding feeling ever."