04
December
2019
|
09:19 PM
America/Chicago

Exceptional Graduate: Female fire cadet chases a burning passion

Gina Perez is up before the sun every morning to make the hour-long commute from Los Fresnos to Hidalgo County for South Texas College’s Fire Science Program.

Once she gets to class she puts on her heavy ‘bunker gear’ and gets to work learning the art of fire safety and extinguishing danger.

Firefighting is an industry that women are still trying to break into with more frequency. It’s still rare to see a woman wearing full gear, holding the hose as the designated nozzle person and running into a flaming structure.

The Basic Firefighter certificate she is pursuing is a semester-long program designed to prepare students for the profession according to standards from the Texas Commission on Fire Protection.

It’s noticeable that Perez is the only woman taking the course this time around. She said that took some getting used to.

“Honestly I was hoping to see more women in the class,” Perez said. “At first, it was kind of nerve-racking. But the other day we were out here training and I saw the Edinburg Fire Department and they have females, which is really cool because I hadn't seen very many either.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only four percent of firefighters are women, which is less than in the police or military ranks. There also aren’t many firefighters who run into a burning room and describe the blaze as ‘beautiful’ but on a cold morning at E.E. Sanders Fire Training Field in Edinburg Gina Perez is working against all of those norms.

Her journey to becoming a passionate firefighter-to-be was born almost 20 years ago.

“I remember as a kid we would make our own little bonfires and try to make s’mores and stuff. I had a thing for fires, it’s weird. And no, I didn’t burn any houses down or anything,” Perez joked.

Perez loved to play with fire as a child. However, like all good parents, her mother gave her the stern talk about fire safety.

As an adult, Perez combined her love for fire and the importance of fire safety to pursue her dream profession through the exceptional courses at STC.

On her path to graduating with the certificate, Perez has learned the rules, techniques and strategies that go alongside the heavy equipment.

Even though her current schedule can be a challenge, the allure of working as a full-time firefighter appeals to the busy mother of two.

“Right now it’s not easy,” Perez said while wrapping up the course, “It’s hard because classes are Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, and when you’re in a fire department you work 24 hours on and have 48 hours off. For me, that gives me a lot of time with my family and children.”

Her instructor, Victor Fonseca noticed her love for the field right away.

“We see early on, when the semester starts, you can see the individuals that have that kind of passion,” Fonseca said regarding students like Perez.

“Honestly, before I thought it was just something that would challenge me,” Perez said. “But after volunteering and going through the academy, I would definitely say it's a calling. Because there's no fear. Nothing but adrenaline, and excitement, and knowing that you have these people behind you that got your back and you got theirs. It's just amazing.”
Gina Perez

She’s worked hard to make her way through the training at South Texas College and add one more woman to the firefighting ranks.

Seeing the representation in the workplace went a long way for Gina who hopes to enter this profession for the long haul.

“I do feel like people see it as a man’s job,” Perez said. “At first it was nerve-racking, now it's like, ‘I can do this.’”

Perez credits STC and Fonesca for teaching a modern approach to a centuries-old practice.

Fonseca, who has been teaching fire science for more than 20 years, said that the Fire Science Program assists with getting students onto the ladder quicker than previous generations.

“Predominantly the old way it used to be to become a fire firefighter you would join a fire department and they would send you to the schooling,” Fonseca said. “South Texas College enables any individual graduating high school to complete the program, pass the exams and you’re eligible to go anywhere in the state and apply for an entry-level position.”

Perez is ready to take the final step in her journey from a volunteer firefighter, to STC graduate and soon a full-time firefighter.

“Honestly, before I thought it was just something that would challenge me,” Perez said. “But after volunteering and going through the academy, I would definitely say it's a calling. Because there's no fear. Nothing but adrenaline, and excitement, and knowing that you have these people behind you that got your back and you got theirs. It's just amazing.”