Grace Under Fire: Behind the Scenes as a Volunteer Firefighter

Lara is a software developer and volunteer firefighter in Argentina. Three years ago, Lara’s community experienced a wildfire that lasted for weeks. Out of frustration and feeling powerless, Lara decided to take action. Through the countless hours she has spent working toward her certification, Lara has found a passion that feeds her inner adrenaline junkie and allows her to give back to her community.

What is a typical day in the life of a firefighter?

Lara: Our shifts are 8PM-8PM. A shift includes a shift captain and 2-3 other people. The groups vary so you get to work with everybody. We get our personal gear ready (suits, helmets, gloves) and then we inspect the truck to make sure that everything is where it needs to be. We spend the rest of the day either doing informal practices or working on improvements at the firehouse. At any point we can get an alarm, and when we do we drop what we’re doing, jump in our suits and it’s on.

We work mostly with wildland fires. We also cover car accidents, hazardous materials spills, structural fires and general rescue operations. When we get back to the station, we clean the tools and replace the materials we used, and fill out the paperwork about the incident. If it was particularly moving or extreme, we discuss it for a while to make sure everyone is feeling alright.

What is the most rewarding part about being a firefighter?

“I just couldn’t wrap my mind around being appreciated by the community like that. Something inside of me changed forever that day.”

There are so many rewarding parts that I’m not sure I could pick one! Probably the first time I felt like I was up to the task, coming back from an alarm thinking ‘I can actually do this’. And being lucky enough to serve a community that doesn’t take us for granted. Last year, for Firefighter Day, we all jumped in the trucks and rode around town, just for fun. We actually expected nothing to happen. And then suddenly, there were a bunch of cars driving behind us making noise and all the little kids were on the sidewalk waving and clapping, and the lady from the neighborhood diner brought us pizzas.

I just couldn’t wrap my mind around being appreciated by the community like that. Something inside of me changed forever that day.

What about the most challenging part?

There are parts that I bet are really challenging that I have fortunately not experienced, like children dying in your hands. My colleagues that have had to deal with it tell me that is the hardest thing they’ve ever been through. Part of our daily routine is having to trust and live with people we would maybe not know if it wasn’t for the job. We are all very different and we all feel very strongly about how things should be done. Add to that the stress of emergency situations, and the fact that we need to give each other orders, and sometimes it’s hard. But we get over it pretty quickly.

Have you had a particular “run” that has left an impression on you, good or bad?

the kitty we saved!When I first started doing shifts, we had a serious flood. Before that, the sum total of my experience was writing down the names and addresses of people involved in a very minor car accident and rescuing a kitty from a tree (yes, we actually do that!). The hills where we live are full of rivers and brooks. Deforestation has been out of control, and last February the rivers overflowed and ran right through the towns, inside the houses, taking people and all their things with them. I remember waiting for the bus to the station, staring at the heavy clouds and realizing it was about to get real.

We had so many calls that day we didn’t even go back to the station between them. Flooded houses, backyard wells giving in, people stuck in mud roads. At one point later in the night, we got stuck trying to find a family that had called from the middle of nowhere. We had to dig our own truck out of the mud with shovels and our hands. It was very, very intense.

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned on the job?

Lara 2The most unexpected lesson has been that it’s better for everyone involved if you don’t discount people’s ability to help themselves. In some cases, people may need our help but that doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of participating. My job is to make the community better. So if I can just get the job done or get it done and empower someone in the process, the latter is the way to go.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I would like to focus on water rescue. When I’m too old to do that, I’d like to stay involved in the department as a counselor to my colleagues having trouble dealing with difficult things they’ve seen on the job. So I’ll probably go back to school at some point.

What does the phrase ‘Strong is our Sexy’ mean to you?

“It’s really scary sometimes, this need to choose between an effective body and a conventionally attractive body.”

It reminds me of one of my favorite graffitis, ‘Mujer bonita es la que lucha’. The translation to English isn’t perfect, but it means ‘a pretty woman is a fighting woman.’ I’d like to have a more I-dont-give-a-f*** answer to this, but let’s be real. It’s really scary sometimes, this need to choose between an effective body and a conventionally attractive body. There are too many messages out there equating female strength and practical looks with masculinity, and female masculinity with ugliness. So I think it’s great to relate strength and beauty in a way that is not inversely proportional, for once. I find it very comforting.

Lara 3Lara embodies the type of humble strength that extends to those around her. When I asked her what advice she’d give to women interested in firefighting, she gave simple, yet powerful advice that can be applied broadly to all women:

  • Equality starts with you not underestimating other women just like you’d like people to not underestimate you. Don’t buy into the fantasy that you’re good because you’re the exception. It hurts everyone, including you.
  • Use your whole body. The traditional techniques are designed for men so they’re all about upper body strength. But you can probably move heavy things better by shoving them with your butt!
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up when stopping people from interfering with your education by forcing their notions of chivalry on you. If I have to choose between speaking up and never pushing my body to do the things I know it can do, I’ll take speaking up every time.
  • It’s better to cry while you speak your mind than to seem tough in silence.
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