There are 1.1 million firefighters in the United States and only 7 percent are women, according to last year’s statistics from the National Fire Protection Association.
But Delray Beach is higher than the national average. Among the 150 firefighters at Delray Beach Fire Rescue, 15 of them are women. All firefighters are required to perform the same tasks.
Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus, who has served as the city’s fire chief, said he is proud see equality for female firefighters.
“When I became a firefighter 34 years ago, it wasn’t a popular career for women,” he said. “Now female firefighters are not referred to as one of the boys anymore. They are just considered one of the family, which is how it should be. I have always hired on qualifications, not gender. That’s why the titles fireman and policeman were changed to firefighter and police officer.”
Regardless of gender, firefighting is an intense gig with years of studying, schooling, training and ongoing dedication.
“There have been men that can’t do the job as well as women who could do it,” said Capt. Crista Mockenhaupt. “Not everyone is cut out for it.”
She has been a firefighter for more than 15 years, rescuing everything from cats in trees to families in a house fire.
“Fighting fires is what we’re trained to do and it can be an adrenaline rush,” Mockenhaupt said. “But we are a resource to whatever people in an emergency need.”
Capt. Ilene Rose has been a firefighter with Delray Beach Fire Rescue for 24 years.
“We used to see one or two overdoses a month and now we’ll have seven in one day,” she said. “It gets to you when you’re pulling these kids out of halfway houses day after day. I have a friend whose son is an addict. A lot of these kids come to South Florida to get help for drug addiction and have no place to go when they get out of rehab.”
A total of 256 overdoses have already been reported this year by Delray Beach Fire Rescue. Mockenhaupt said what gets many firefighters through the worst days is knowing everyone in the department has each other’s back.
“The family and relationships firefighters build with each other is strong,” Mockenhaupt said. “When times are tough, you have 150 people who will stand up for you.”
Firefighter Chelsea Allison, who became one of the newest members of Delray Beach Fire Rescue more than a year ago, said she feels fortunate to be a first responder.
“Coming to work, you feel like you’re making a difference,” she said.
For firefighter/paramedic Sarah Murphy, she said she is proud to be a positive role model for her children.
“My kids thinks it’s cool that I’m a firefighter,” said the mother of four. “I’m a firefighter’s daughter and many of my family members are also firefighters. My mother was a dispatcher.”
Murphy, who has been a firefighter for 13 years, said one of the hardest parts of the job is not being able to be home with her children during overnight shifts.
“It’s not a 9 to 5 job,” said Murphy, whose husband retired from the fire department in 2009. “It’s hard on the kids. My 5-year-old will call me crying when he knows he won’t see me for two days, but these are the sacrifices we make as part of our job.”
For firefighter/paramedic Idania Miller-Angel, whose husband is also a firefighter, it can be a challenge navigating their lives on opposite shifts so one of them can always be home to care for their four children.
“We have all gone through the same obstacles to be here,” Miller-Angel said. “When I was in the fire academy, I faced challenges. I’m [5 feet 2 and a half inches tall], so that was my first obstacle. But all of us had to overcome the same obstacles. I feel blessed to be a part of this establishment.”
In between emergency calls, the firefighters might discuss what they’ll be having for dinner, work out or watch television. They each have rooms in the fire station with beds and a shared bathroom area set up dorm room style.
“There’s really no safe time to take a shower,” Rose said. “If you get called for an emergency while taking a shower, you just have to throw your clothes on and head out to the truck as fast as you can.”
And while it’s a popular misconception that firefighters are provided with food via taxpayers’ money, they aren’t. Firefighters pool their money and buy food at the grocery store to prepare at the station during the week.
“We all take turns cooking,” Rose said. “We’ll ask each other what they feel like having. If everyone says pulled pork, then that’s what we make. We enjoy eating dinner together. It’s really like a second family.”
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