By Suzanne Kidd
When I asked Apopka firefighter Renee Beasley, 13 years on the job, how the four women of the Apopka Fire Department refer to themselves, she never hesitated. Proudly and emphatically she replied, "we call ourselves FIREFIGHTERS!"
Notice, not women firefighters, just firefighters.
And therein lies the key reason why working for Apopka's prized ISO-1 fire department is so highly sought after. It's because this tightly-knit group of superbly trained and unbelievably fit first responders unequivocally rejects superficial dividers like gender. Just "do your job" is their motto. Differences don't matter. Everyone is family. Everyone is respected and valued for the unique strengths they bring to the job. It's all about teamwork and watching each others' backs.
"It's the brotherhood and sisterhood of the job which sets Apopka apart from other departments," said Apopka Fire Department Chief Chuck Carnesale. "In Apopka you have a name, not a number."
Like all 75 (soon to be 93) Apopka firefighters, Carrie Von Bargen, Mandy Mathis, Maryjo Hutsell, and Beasley work 24-hour shifts followed by two days off. Beasley described a typical day. Every morning, every shift, the time consuming but crucial task of inspecting each piece of equipment is performed. Everything must be operationally ready. Hoses, fan, extrication tools, pump, water tanks and gear have to be on the engine. Throughout the shift, fire or EMS (Emergency Medical Services) runs can come at any moment. Between calls "down time" is devoted to preserving and enhancing fitness and strength, cross-training to be able to step in and perform each other's jobs if necessary, and carrying out duties that maintain Apopka's cherished ISO-1 ranking. Mathis attributed Apopka's avoidance of devastating fires to the Department's yearly hydrant checks and swift response times. Beasley described how afternoons might be spent carrying out on-site inspections of businesses, checking sprinklers, exits and hazards. Additional training for faster response time includes committing to memory street layouts and subdivision locations and learning the fastest routes to any location within the station's territory.
Interestingly, each woman's path to firefighting is unique. Mathis (a Paramedic/Firefighter) abandoned her dream to be a Marine when a friend's firefighter dad allowed her to ride along with him for a day. She was hooked! First she obtained an A.S. degree in fire science, then, in rapid succession, EMT school, Fire School and paramedic training, all typical schooling for Apopka firefighters. Mathis is further qualified in ACLS, advanced cardiac life support. It is probably not surprising to learn that she is now studying to become a registered nurse, a profession she plans to follow on her off days while continuing as an Apopka firefighter. For Beasley, (a Paramedic/Engineer) her high school job in a veterinarian's clinic sparked a love of the medical field, leading her to EMT school, which led to Fire Standards, joining the Apopka Fire Department, and, later, paramedic qualification. In 2009, following rigorous self-study and testing, she achieved the coveted rank of Engineer. As engineer, like Von Bargen (Paramedic/Engineer) and Hutsell (EMT/Engineer), she drives the engine and operates its complex pumping system that controls volume and pressure to the engine's multiple fire hoses. In future she hopes to achieve the rank of lieutenant, then, who knows?
And speaking of toughness, VonBargen, Beasley and Mathis all train and compete in the strenuous Scott Safety Firefighter Combat Challenge. This grueling, physical competition mirrors and tests skills firefighters must be prepared to execute at a moment's notice. Held in 15 different cities around the nation each year, Apopka was honored to host the Challenge at Sam's Club this May. Dressed in 80 pounds of full firefighting gear, male and female competitors alike race the clock and an opponent to perform six demanding tasks that simulate firefighting operations: climbing, hoisting, chopping, maneuvering around obstacles, dragging water-filled hoses, and victim rescue. For Beasley, who shined in the Apopka Challenge, competing is a way to prove something to herself. From a course time of 8 minutes just one year ago, she has trained relentlessly, lowering her record to 3-minutes, 45 seconds, inching her ever closer to that magic 3 minute mark which will earn her entry into the elite ranks of the "Lions Den", that coveted designation reserved for the best of the best.
On a deeper level, I wondered what drives these remarkable women to absolutely LOVE what is certainly a non-traditional work role. For Mathis it's the adrenaline rush, the thrill of helping bring a new life into the world, and the satisfaction of "giving back". To Beasley, this job is an expression of her life outlook, "don't let anyone tell you you can't do something. Let no one but you say what you can achieve. Work for it. Just DO it!"
Soon Apopka will have three more women on board, part of the 18 new hires needed to raise staffing levels for when Fire Station 5 comes on line no later than early next year. They're in training now. What amazing role models they will have to emulate in VonBargen, Mathis, Hutsell and Beasley. The "newbies" will shortly take their place proudly beside Apopka's "fab four", the Apopka firefighters who (just) happen to be women. And that will be a great thing for Apopka!
"I'm incredibly proud of our entire department and its members " says Carnesale. "Morale is the highest I've ever seen it. The future of our City and our Department is so bright!!" And THAT is a great thing for Apopka.
Suzanne Kidd is a former 30-year public school educator and design professional. During her sixteen years as an Apopka resident, she has been an active participant in her homeowners’ association and Apopka civic affairs, attending City Council and Planning Commission meetings and serving on several City committees, most recently chairing the City’s Visioning Steering Committee. She is currently involved with Habitat for Humanity in bringing affordable housing to Apopka.