The Trailblazing Women of JFRD

Captain Dallas Cooke by Vincent Dalessio

“They’re not asking me to do anything other than what she’s done. So I can do it too.”

Since Mayor Lenny Curry appointed Keith Powers to be the permanent Director/Fire Chief in 2019, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD) has taken on a different face.  Powers believes it’s vital for the make-up of department personnel to mirror the community in which it serves. With this prioritization, new community members have stepped up to join forces against one of the most destructive forces on Earth. 

Historically, firefighting is a male-dominated industry, but women are becoming a keystone of firefighting, especially in Jacksonville. Data from the National Fire Protection Association shows that nationwide only about 4% of career firefighters are females. JFRD, however, extinguishes this norm with over 15% of firefighters being female. Working as the minority in any group is no easy feat, but these women are showing they are just as capable.

JFRD has overcome many trials throughout its history, and agency leaders are striving to become an example of equal opportunity in the workplace. Prior to Powers’ appointment,  the department agreed to pay about $5 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit and develop new promotional testing for personnel in the department. 

 Earning promotions in the fire department is done only through personal effort. Continuing education is heavily encouraged, and peers help each other toward promotion, but ultimately, your success is a result of your own gusto. Firefighters are only promoted to positions for which they have tested and therefore proven their capabilities. This creates a potentially perfect environment for women to thrive, as almost every requirement of the job is equal between sexes.

The department has driven the evolution of national fire fighting procedures for decades. It was the first department in the nation to implement fire-based EMS in 1967 and established the first fire-based Hazardous Materials team in 1977. In 2004, JFRD established the Emergency Road Access Team (ERAT) which have proven vital during the barrage of hurricanes that have threatened Jacksonville. Mirroring the make-up of our community and strategically placing female firefighters in positions of power could be the next national movement started by JFRD.

Working alongside Capt. Eric Prosswimmer, I was able to briefly experience some of a firefighter’s 24-hour shift while visiting two of Jacksonville’s busiest stations; Station 1 in the Urban Core and Station 20 in the Southside. Over two days, I had the opportunity to sit down with two of JFRD’s most prominent women and respond to emergency calls by their side. In doing so, I learned Capt. Dallas Cooke and Engineer Arianna Lopez are the embodiment of grit and hard work. 

Fire Truck Engineer Arianna Lopez 

Arianna Lopez

How did you get involved with JFRD?

Actually, I went to school for [electrical] engineering. I’m originally from Spain. So I spent my childhood there, moved over here, got my [electrical] engineering degree, got offered a job right out of college and did that for about three years, then decided the money just wasn’t worth it for me. So I wanted to do something I actually enjoyed doing and look forward to going into work, instead of dreading going into work. It obviously wasn’t an overnight decision. 

What is your role as the fire truck engineer?

Obviously, the main thing is to get in there safe. It’s definitely a big stressor because sometimes you’re in the middle of the night when you just fall asleep, and all of a sudden you get toned out to a fire. You’re getting the adrenaline rush, and you want to get there first, then you also got to think about the people that are around with you, and their lives ultimately depend on you getting there safely. Their families, you know, they’re counting on you. With these guys’ families, I couldn’t look them in the eye knowing that I hurt them in any way. So that’s that’s my biggest responsibility: getting there safely. We’ll figure it out once we get there. 

Can you talk about your process of becoming a U.S. citizen?

Throughout the process of being here, playing sports in college, getting my degree, doing engineering for a while, and then transitioning into (JFRD), it’s been a journey, and I decided that I wanted to fulfill it even more by becoming a U.S. citizen. I knew it was gonna be a long process. And it sure was. I had lots of interviews and lots of paperwork and some headaches and banging my head against a wall, it [felt] like sometimes. And it took almost 13 years to file all together. Talk about a support system. I can’t imagine doing that without these guys being there. Just showing their support, they sure made a difference. 

Does the community respond differently when you or other women respond to calls?

I do notice a little bit of a difference. Sometimes they look to you for a little bit more compassion, maybe kids for that motherly affection. You also see it on the negative side too. Sometimes you get sexual comments and all that. So some people don’t really know how to react, seeing a female firefighter driving the firetruck, you know, so you get all kinds of different reactions. I just play along with whatever. I joke around. If I get a rude comment, I’ll kill you with kindness, and if I get a nice calm one, I’ll thank you for it.

What is it like working with mostly men?

I consider myself to be one of them, and I don’t really look at things differently. Male firefighter, female firefighter, I think we all have something different to bring to the table. I mean, everybody’s got their own personalities, maybe different opinions, different perspectives. I think we all bring something different.

Do you think more women should become firefighters? 

It’s not that I think more women should join, I just think that more women should not be afraid of doing it. I know that some people hesitate on how it’s going to be, being around all men: Are they going to accept me? Am I going to be able to do the job? I think it’s just willing to take that risk and trusting that you’re going to get the job done. Just not being scared of doing. I’m not necessarily out there like, “Oh go, women power. Let’s go be firefighters.” It’s more of don’t be afraid of going after your dream and trying it out. It just takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of effort. But I think that’s with anything in life. And if it were easy, like I always tell people, everybody would do it. So you just got to take a leap of faith.

Captain Dallas Cooke

Dallas Cooke

How did you get involved with JFRD?

My journey to JFRD started at Memorial Hospital. I was a tech, and I would see the EMS professionals coming in and out. And I’m like, “Hmm, I wonder if I could do that.” I went to EMT school. And that’s when I was like, “Okay, I can get hired on with the Jacksonville fire department. So that’s when I said okay, if it’s for me, I’m going to go to fire school. And I had no idea what being a firefighter was gonna be like, but fire school was kind of like my trial—if I enjoyed it and if I could do it. 

What is your role as rescue captain?

My role as a captain, in an emergency situation, is to be the overseer. Pretty much, I’m the delegator. I’m making sure the plan that I have is being executed in a way that I need it done in a timely and effective way … Some people get tunnel vision, and sometimes you gotta snap them out of it. Or somebody has to sit back and say, “No, we can’t have this tunnel, can’t do it that way.” As I’m watching, I’m the person looking at it like, “Oh, hey, I know we normally do it this way, but this situation is a little different. Let’s do it this way.” So just really, I’m the guardian angel. 

Do you feel like the work standards should be any different between male and female?

A lot of women on the job don’t come here expecting to be treated any differently. I come here because we’re all equally qualified. I don’t want you to think you have to carry my hand. Because a lot of the guys, by default, want to help women in ways that sometimes you don’t have to, like I can do it, too.  Just let us show you that we can do the job just the same, or even better in some situations. We don’t want our partners to think that we don’t have their back in certain situations. I want my partners to know that if you fall, we’re getting you out. I’m not leaving you. And we’re getting back together. 

What do women bring to the fire squad?

We bring in critical thinking. We know, by default, we may not be as physically upper body strong. However, we work smart. We still get the same job done. We still get to the same goal. I think we are a little more strategic than our counterparts, but at the end of the day, we both get the job done. 

How has your training prepared you for your work?

It is a continuing education. You know, fire school teaches you the base pace, the foundation pretty much; however, this is on-the-job training. And you’re continuously learning. There’s a science to it. There’s an art to it. Love every part of it.

How do you inspire the next generation of female firefighters? 

I try to go out to our training academy because I remember when I was in fire school, they didn’t have a lot of female instructors. And it was big for me. It was motivating, really, just their presence being there would be motivation. I teach out there because I remember when I was coming on what I wanted to see, and I just want to be that person for other people too, because it means a lot when you have someone relatable there. I don’t have to say a word, but just my presence will let them know, “Okay, I can do this too because she’s done it. They’re not asking me to do anything other than what she’s done. So I can do it too.”