In Times of Disaster, These Pennsylvania Moms Step Up

The ear-piercing whine of the pager at Cassie Fritzinger’s and Amy Ciavaglia’s homes means South Ward Fire Company, Station 4, in Tamaqua is being called to duty. To their children, it means mom is heading out on a call.

by Amanda Christman, Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa. / May 13, 2019

(TNS) — She’s the mender of the scraped knee, the broken toy, the broken heart.

Mom brushes aside her own needs to fix it all while meeting every other household and professional demand thrown at her.

Yet, there are some who still find time to extend their selfless empathy to others.

These mothers are the first due.

They voluntarily answer a distressed stranger’s emergency call without notice and without pay.

Many of them remember a time not so long ago when a woman in protective turnout gear was a foreign sight on the fire ground.

A mother? Even more unusual.

Today they’re among those working at dangerous emergency scenes, their genders and their roles somewhat concealed by the bulky helmet and turnout gear that bears their last names.

They’re there on a stranger’s worst day, hoping that person gets a chance to enjoy the best of days.

All the while, they’re praying they get another day to do it all over again — and another day with their children, too.

Ahead of Mother’s Day, 14 of these brave moms who belong to the sisterhood of firefighters in Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties sat down to talk to the Standard-Speaker about how they manage — and why they do it all.

A pager rings

The ear-piercing whine of the pager at Cassie Fritzinger’s and Amy Ciavaglia’s homes means South Ward Fire Company, Station 4, in Tamaqua is being called to duty. To their children, it means mom is heading out on a call.

“The pager goes off and you do what you have to do,” Fritzinger said.

That means stopping dead in their tracks and jumping in their cars to head to the fire station at any given moment, Ciavaglia said. Dinner will wait, cleaning will wait and planned events are put on hold.

Though their plans are delayed at times, helping people in need never really took away from their own lives.

Instead, it became a part of it, Fritzinger said.

It enriched them.

Fritzinger, 34, began running with fire companies at 14 years old. She did it because relatives were members, but she’s the first woman in her family to join the ranks.

She responded to fewer calls when her children were younger, and though she loved fulfilling her role as mom, she was “miserable” without the fire company camaraderie and the rush of helping someone in need.

Now that her children are older, Fritzinger is out on calls more often. Ciavaglia had babysitting help from her mother-in-law, which allowed her to keep answering the call.

Schedules, though, are chaotic. Before her interview, Fritzinger was at one of her children’s track meets and prior to that working as a full-time nurse. All the while, the possibility of a fire call loomed.

So why do they do it?

“It’s my passion,” Fritzinger said.

Sometimes Deana and Willy Chupela’s daughter joins her parents on a call and other times she stays in the care of a family member.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” Deana Chupela, of Valley Regional Fire and Rescue, said of her family’s schedule, juggling calls between work and her daughter’s dance practices and school.

Pregnant now with their second child, Chupela still responds to calls, though the heavy lifting has been put on hold until the baby arrives.

Firefighting can be genetic, in a figurative way, and so their sporadic schedules are the norm.

Chupela, Freeland firefighters Ashley Herring and Audrey Stepansky, and Hazleton and Hazle Twp. firefighter Mackenzie Jones all come from a long line of firefighters, so dropping whatever they were doing for an emergency call is nothing new.

Herring said her son often says, “We have to help the people,” as she simultaneously calls for a sitter and rushes out the door to an emergency call where seconds matter.

For now, Jones has devoted most her time to college, where she is studying nursing. She manages to squeeze calls into her busy schedule of mom and student, though.

Shari Boris and her daughter, Alyssa Petri, took turns holding 8-month-old Grayson during their interview about firefighter moms. Much is the same during a call for help. One of them watches Petri’s baby when the pager sounds, though both women are certified to fight fires. So are Boris’ sister-in-law, Theresa Mulhall, and her son, Justin.

Boris found her way to fire departments over 30 years ago, first getting involved in the auxiliary and then, with a host of other women in 2000, received hours-long training and became active firefighters.

All of these firefighter moms are trained to extinguish fires, rescue people trapped in twisted and crumbled cars, and help those who have fallen back to their feet.

Others have expanded their skills, receiving additional training on things like rope rescues that leave them dangling from a cord less than an inch wide.

It may seem like a lot, serving the community at a moment’s notice while working and taking care of a household, but it’s possible, Boris said.

The fire department has become an extension of their home life.

“We just pay for homes that we don’t live in,” Petri said, laughing.

The firefighter’s way of life for Petri and so many others is not only possible but normal.

“I was born into it,” she said.

Not all have a lineage of relatives who served, though.

Lizzie Donald of Beaver Meadows became an emergency medical technician and a firefighter in 2011. She always had an interest to help others growing up but it wasn’t until she was out of high school that she made the move.

She’s in the process of adopting a toddler and manages to juggle her child and her passion with help from family. Sometimes her husband, Dikki, is running out the door to an emergency alone now so she can stay home with their son, and other times, when her mother-in-law can watch him, she’s right alongside her spouse heading to the call.

Just like the other women, Donald’s child is on her mind as she heads out the door.

“I think of him. I would want someone to help him,” she said.

Reflections

Faith Mandak listens to some of the interviews with the young moms and smiles.

It wasn’t all that long ago she was in their position, raising children while making time to help someone else.

“It wasn’t easy,” Mandak said.

Now that her youngest is nearly grown and running out to emergencies herself, part of her worries about her daughter’s safety, but she also knows that her training will keep her safe.

Mandak has training as a firefighter but volunteers her time with fire police, keeping the public away from dangerous situations.

When she started running calls at 19 years old, her peers mostly were men, but as time went by she witnessed more women joining the ranks.

At one point, women stayed back at the station while the men answered the calls, making sure they had something to eat upon their return.

Today, girls and women have more opportunities in the world and fire service is no different, Mandak said.

Fritzinger and Ciavaglia are just two of their station’s roughly 10 female firefighters, Ciavaglia said.

Society has changed, giving women more opportunities, said Donald.

“I think women have proven themselves, that they can do anything,” she said.

But, that took some time.

The sound of McAdoo’s house siren made Christine Eroh burst with curiosity as a child.

She’d run to the station to check out the chalkboard and see where the men were headed.

There wasn’t a 911 communications center to dispatch first responders then. They relied on other means, like message boards at the station.

Eroh’s interest in firefighting continued into adulthood and was also a passion of her husband, Jonathan, a firefighter since he was 14 years old.

Eventually, Eroh joined the ranks of Weatherly firefighter in 2001 once her children were grown, and though she now handles mostly administrative work at the station, at one time she was front and center at many emergencies.

Her employer would let her leave work for emergency calls.

“There I was in a skirt grabbing a hose,” she said.

Eroh, now also attached to Beaver Meadows fire, laughed as she recalled someone dubbing her the best dressed firefighter they knew.

Patrice Veet serves in Beaver Meadows with Donald and Eroh. She’s been a fire police officer for 20 years.

“I’m the one that protects everyone going into the building,” Veet, now fire police captain, said. There were no women when she joined, either, but most of the men welcomed her in; they needed her.

Over the past two decades, it’s a typical sight to find Veet in reflective gear, day or night, detouring vehicles from the scene of an emergency to keep the motorists and the firefighters behind her protective line safe.

Mom’s bunker gear

The women witnessed a surge not only in female firefighters, but also in firefighter moms.

Boris said it happened in the early 2000s and believes they inspired each other to join.

Asked if she thought anyone had misconceptions of women in the field, Eroh was quick to respond: “That there’s pies in the oven when you leave sometimes.”

“And eggs in the griddle,” said Jennifer Wentz of American Fire Company No. 1, Lansford.

Wentz joined a fire company in Carbon County at 15 years old but was never treated differently than her male counterparts, even though there weren’t many female firefighters at the time.

Whenever someone told her she couldn’t do something, her response was, “Well, I’ll show you.”

Once, while helping lift a man who had fallen, an onlooker was shocked that Wentz, who stands about 5 feet tall, was able to help someone much bigger than her get back up.

Thirty years ago, Wendy Hildebrand was a recent high school graduate when she stopped on the roadside, curious about a crash on Interstate 81. Then known as Wendy Price, she started talking to the first responders and shortly after, became a member.

Something compelled her to join.

Early on she heard some flack from a few firemen about having a woman in their ranks but a peer told her to ignore it.

She did.

Now she’s lieutenant of the Sugarloaf Twp. Fire Company, driving its trucks to emergencies.

She’s an EMT, too.

Through the fire company she met her husband of 25 years, now Chief Duane Hildebrand. She responded to calls up until two weeks prior to delivering their son, Peter, mostly driving emergency vehicles.

Julie Zangari began volunteering about 23 years ago at Rangers Hose Company in Girardville, where her husband, Frank, is chief. She was a fire company officer at first but decided at one point she wanted to be more active and so she and son Michael took firefighter classes together.

“We often talk about how we can help somebody on their worst day of their lives,” she said.

Today, the Zangari house is empty when the fire call sounds. Only the dog is left behind.

Julie Zangari, who today also serves as fire company vice president, said the most gratifying experience for first responders is the thank-yous they hear from the public. She recalled one special thank-you from an elementary school child, who stopped by the station days after he was released from medical care.

He was taken by helicopter to a hospital and the fire department set up a landing zone in a baseball field to get him on board.

“It was so heartfelt,” she said.

Boris hears thank-yous at work at Boyer’s supermarket in Shenandoah the day after a fire. She’s usually sleep deprived at the time but the appreciation, though not necessary, makes her feel like she’s doing right with her life.

Jones finds it satisfying when she gets a surprised look from the public when they realize there’s a woman under that heavy gear, especially when it’s from the little girls watching from the sidelines who see first hand that they, too, are capable of anything.

And, for those women and girls considering a try ...

“You can do it. Don’t let them tell you you can’t,” Herring said.

Sometimes it’s not an easy job.

The public may scrutinize firefighters’ work without really knowing the totality of a situation, but “you don’t let what you hear on the street downgrade you,” Stepansky said.

It’s a physically demanding volunteer job that also involves constant training and when you’re a mom in demand responding to calls can be a challenge but each one of the women says it’s all worth it.

None of this, though — the work they do, the training they take, how they help their neighbors — is anything heroic to them.

Humbly, they don’t think they’re doing anything special.

Contact the writer: achristman@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3584

https://youtu.be/B6p57vi91Tw

———

©2019 the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.)

Visit the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.) at standardspeaker.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.