By Rachel Christian
Jamie Steffen is what Kissimmee Fire Chief Jim Walls affectionately calls “a department girl.”
She has a bubbly personality and an optimism so genuine, it’s instantly endearing. When she says she loves her job and can’t believe she’s “a real firefighter” now, you can tell she means it.
“I’m so lucky this is my job,” says Steffen, who joined the department almost two years ago. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
But Steffen didn’t grow up knowing she wanted to be a firefighter. She considered something in nursing – a more traditional female career choice – but she wasn’t completely sure.
Things changed when Steffen was about 25 years old and became involved in a car accident with two friends.
Steffen was OK, but one of her friends was badly injured. Instead of losing her cool or turning queasy, Steffen focused on helping and staying calm for her friend. “I realized it wasn’t my emergency,” she says.
That’s when Steffen, who was working as a bartender in her hometown of Kissimmee, decided it was time to make a change.
She soon enrolled in EMT classes, and later became a paramedic.
While she underwent her clinicals, Steffen visited a place that would become her second home – Station 11.
Nicknamed “the Big House,” Station 11 is the largest and busiest firehouse in the city. Steffen says it was love at first sight – the trucks, the tools, the brotherhood and feeling of acceptance she felt from the start.
“That’s all she wrote,” she says. “I just knew.”
Steffen went on to complete her fire standards and snagged a position at the department.
It’s an exciting job, and when Steffen talks about it, her enthusiasm shines through.
“There’s something about seeing everyone run away from a massive structure fire, and knowing you and your team are running toward it,” she said. “It’s hard to explain the feeling, but it’s amazing.”
Steffen is admittedly “a late bloomer” compared to many of her peers. She didn’t come on board until two years ago at the age of 31.
While she’s still learning the ropes, one thing Steffen says she’s never felt inferior about is her gender. That’s despite being one of only three female active duty firefighters in Kissimmee.
Nationwide, fire fighting remains a male dominated field, with female representation struggling to escape the single digits. There’s been some push for more diversity, but progress is slow.
Still, Steffen says the men she considers brothers have never discriminated against her. She’s felt a need to prove herself, she admits, but she’s received plenty of encouragement along the way.
“I consider them my extended family,” she says. “During training, they’re always telling me I can do it, and they’re right.”
Things that made Steffen nervous in the beginning turned out to be non-issues. For example, she didn’t know if she was strong enough to handle the job. She was – she just needed to learn a few work arounds to carry certain equipment and perform other physical tasks.
The important thing is she gets the job done, and Steffen says she thinks that’s what her fellow firefighters respect about her most.
Some days are easier than others. “Bad calls,” although rare, can linger long after the job is done. Even a year after two Kissimmee Police Department officers were killed in the line of duty, it’s difficult for Steffen to talk about it without tearing up.
It can be difficult to talk about the scarier aspects of the job, especially with relatives or longtime female friends. They’re all proud of her and think her career choice is great, but Steffen can tell they don’t always know what to say.
“I try to spare them the details, but even still, I know it’s hard for them to really understand what it’s like,” Steffen said.
Talking to her fellow firefighters is a great comfort, though Steffen admits this is where gender differences are more obvious.
“I cry a lot over a lot of things, and some of the guys are like, ‘Oh god, Jamie,’” she says, laughing again. “I tend to be a little more emotional after the fact, but once I get it out of my system, I’m better.”
Steffen sees her first two years with the department as just the beginning of what she hopes will be a long, productive career. She plans to one day become an engineer, the person in charge of driving the fire truck. She’s taken it for a spin a couple times already during training. With a big smile on her face, she describes the experience as “really awesome.”
Steffen says she hopes more women and young girls see fire fighting as a viable career choice in the future. Although she never imagined herself doing this when she was growing up, Steffen says she can’t imagine her life without it now.
“It’s just about helping people,” she says. “If you’re good at that and you’re a hard worker, this is an amazing job – for anyone.”