Sheilyan Vega saw plenty of fires growing up.
When the sirens screamed in her East Side neighborhood, Vega would watch in awe as Bridgeport's bravest came to the rescue, and she would search for a firefighter who looked like her.
"I'd think there has to be at least one," she said.
The East Side fire station had no female quarters, however, and so the Puerto Rico native never saw a female firefighter.
When the department began recruiting seven years ago, Vega, called "Sheila," became one of nine women in the 287-member Bridgeport Fire Department.
She said she has spent her entire career smiling and waving at every little girl she sees when on call.
"I try to make it a point to be seen," she said, "just to let them know it's an option."
And now, Vega is opening more doors for little girls.
On Tuesday, she will become the first female in the Bridgeport Fire Department to be made a pumper engineer, one of only 40 in the department.
Although women have served as pumper engineers on provisional or acting bases in the past, Vega is the first to pass the promotional test and be permanently promoted to the position, which involves driving the fire truck, setting up the hose and monitoring the panel that controls the water pressure.
She is also the first Latina to ever place first on a promotional exam here. Coincidentally, the promotional ceremony will take place just two days after the start of Hispanic Heritage Month.
"She's an excellent firefighter, and I'm not surprised she excelled on this exam," Fire Chief Brian Rooney said.
Venus Scudder, a firefighter stationed with Vega, said her co-worker earned the position. Although Scudder also took the exam, when she heard that a woman had placed first she instantly knew it was Vega.
"She just studied her butt off," Scudder said.
In the months before the test, Vega completed the 48 hours needed to pass the state pump class and took a basic pump refresher course. The 36-year-old, who didn't know how to connect the pump or drive the fire truck until last fall, also wasn't afraid to ask for help.
It was Capt. Jeff Cronin and Lt. Lee Williamson who took time to teach her how to drive and pump, and helped her practice.
"Between the two of them, they prepared me," Vega said. "All the guys at work were just phenomenal. I have been very fortunate in this department. I work with really awesome, great guys."
For her husband and two children, the new role is a relief, especially after she suffered severe leg burns in a fire last October.
Seven years into the job and her 19-year-old daughter, just a small child when the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred, still associates emergency responders with tragedy and calls each time she hears a fire truck siren. However, for the most part, pumper engineers stay out of the fire.
"It's all math," Vega said. "You have to figure out how much water they're getting, how much they need and what pressure is needed."
When she responded to a fire on French Street recently, she realized how much she missed being in the action.
"I'm just standing there thinking 'there's got to be something else I can be doing,' " she said. "I used to be the fourth firefighter. So I had the nozzle and I was in -- face to face with the fire. That's the part I'm going to miss the most. It's going in."
The promotion was bittersweet, since her mother passed away just last month without knowing Vega made it.
Vega has wanted to be a firefighter since the age of 7, when medics unsuccessfully tried to save her father after he had a heart attack.
"If I can just give you that little bit of hope, even for that one second -- that comfort -- it's worth it," she said.
Vega said she is proud she can show young girls in Bridgeport that no dreams are unreachable if they work hard enough. And anyway, she added, she can always get back into the action by taking the next promotional exam.
Lieutenants -- the next rank up -- have active roles in fires, she noted.
"Then I'd get to go back in," she said.
Also being promoted to pumper engineers Tuesday are: Erwin Ayala, Charles Deer, Frank Perugini and James Zavodjancik. Promoted to lieutenant will be William Boroskey, Marcus Dierna, Jeffrey Gdovin, Joseph Kirkland, Joseph Lachioma and Louis Santiago.
(c)2013 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original Headline: Latina firefighter, First female pumper engineer
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