Sara Shaffer (31) can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a firefighter. Following in the footsteps of her father and other family members, Sara started chasing her dream at an early age. Today, Sara’s hard work, heroism and commitment to her community – Prince George, Maryland – has earned her one of the most illustrious awards for valor, National Firefighter of the Year, given by The American Legion.
Since 2010, The American Legion has given the National Firefighter of the Year Award to a firefighter who has exceeded the requirements expected of his or her position and has shown a distinct pattern of community service and professional achievement. The award, which takes into account heroic acts, will be given to Sara this Wednesday at the Legion’s national convention.
“It’s been over 30 years since the first female was hired in PGFD. The trail was blazed, set and paved long before my arrival.”
Sara is being awarded for her efforts last January when her fire engine responded to a three-vehicle accident. Another Prince George’s County Fire/EMS engine had been rear-ended by a semi-truck and an SUV had been turned over. The fire engine had been flipped as well, and Sara was responsible for tending to the injured in that vehicle.
WYSK spoke with this real life superhero to learn more about being a firefighter, and her advice to women looking to pursue a career in fire service.
Firefighter Of The Year Sarah Shaffer
When did you know you wanted to become a firefighter?
SS: Growing up I had listened to my family and their on-the-job experiences, but never thought about myself doing it. It wasn’t until high school that I saw a lot of people my own age volunteering and I thought, if they can do it, so can I. So, at 18, I started as a volunteer. When I was sure I could handle all aspects, I started applying to career fire depts.
Was your family supportive?
SS: I actually didn’t tell anyone in my family I had joined a department until I had passed firefighter 1 course. At first (and still) they were nervous about safety and dangers of the job, not because I’m a girl, but because we know first hand how bad the injuries can be.
But they were supportive from the beginning, whether they agreed with it or not.
How many women are in your fire department?
SS: I don’t know an exact number, at one point we were around 16% female. But that was a couple years ago. Our department is growing and has around 800 career members so I’d safely bet at least 60 active females and well over 100 retired. That also does not include the volunteer members.
Women have achieved every rank in the Prince George’s Fire Department – minus Fire Chief. There are female arson investigators, bomb techs, technical rescue team members, academy instructors, CPAT (physical agility test) coordinators, and background/recruitment. Our Academy, Special Events Unit, EMS office, Safety Office and Professional Standards are also headed up by women at this time. You’d be hard pressed not to find a female you can look up to in our department.
It’s been over 30 years since the first female was hired in PGFD. The trail was blazed, set and paved long before my arrival. It’s less of a struggle in this department than others to not just be accepted, but excel.
What’s it like for you as the only woman in the firehouse?
SS: I’d say it’s probably the same as the guys… except I get an entire bathroom all to myself, where the 10 of them have to share one!
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
SS: I like photography, travel and my dog Murphy – luckily those three things fit well together. I live by the bay, so any chance to kayak and paddle board I take. I belong to a couple volunteer organizations and I go to Calvert MMA a mixed martial arts academy.
Do you have any advice for young women wanted to pursue fire service as a career?
SS: Join your local department and start taking fire classes if possible. This career is a dream for so many people, so be sure you want this job before you take it from someone else only to quit half way through.
Joining Sara at the awards is her colleague Katie Johnson, also of Prince George’s County Fire/EMS, who will be awarded paramedic of the year, making it the first time two females will be honored for both firefighter and paramedic of the year awards.
Wishing Sara, Katie and the other award recipients our heartfelt thanks for all that they do!
Lead photo courtesy of Dan Gross/The Gazette