Guardsman fights fires and stereotypes

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. David Speicher
  • 175th Wing Public Affairs
In the firefighting profession, fear is not an option and the challenges can be big.

Senior Airman Sheila M. Fuentes, a full-time firefighter here at Warfield Air National Guard Base, put the fear of leaving her unit and home in Puerto Rico behind her to pursue the challenge of a career in Maryland.

She left Puerto Rico and joined the Maryland Air National Guard last year.  Then in March, she landed a full-time firefighter position with the base firefighting department. "I took my chances and I came over here," she said.

It would have been difficult for her to become a full-time firefighter in Puerto Rico. "Career fire fighter positions are hard there, you had to know somebody - very political," she said.

She served with 12 members of the 175th Wing she met while serving with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard while deployed to Bahrain in 2012. During that six month deployment, she worked well with them. "I got to see how good they were as a fire department."

From the start of her Air Force career in 2010, Fuentes wanted a challenge.
"I told the recruiter I wanted a physically active job. Being a fire fighter is a hard job which sometimes you have to grow into it. After graduating firefighting school, I fell in love with the job," she said.

"It is not all about fighting fire. It's more than about that. We have the medical side. It is about helping the community. It's about making sure people are going to be safe by preventing situations," said Fuentes.

"I am a woman who likes challenges. There are a few women out there, but for the most part, it's a guy's career and it feels good to know that I can do the job." She is the only current female in the fire department.

As a woman, she had concerns about a male dominated career.
"In this department I have never had a problem. The guys are very supportive. They treat me as I am one of them. I have never had a sexist attitude from them," said Fuentes. "This is a really good department for a female fire fighter. My supervisor always makes sure that I am okay."

She did have concerns about coming here. "It is scary coming to new unit. It was a big change coming from an island to the main land. There is a different culture here. I knew I would be the only female fire fighter here. It was very scary," she said.

"It took me a couple of drill weekends (to adjust). The fire fighters made it really easy for me. They would make sure I was okay. If I had any concerns, I was more than welcome to talk to management. They knew my concerns about being the only female. They had a zero tolerance (for harassment). The six months I served with 12 of them in Bahrain made it easier because I knew them," said Fuentes.

Fuentes remarked on the difference between where she was born and here. "Puerto Rico is very social, everybody knows your business. It is more peaceful living here and a lot to do. One day I can be on the beach and the next day be out in the rural country. There is a lot of history around here."

Fuentes near term plans is to finish her Community College of the Air Force degree. She sees herself staying in the guard 20 plus years and earning a leadership position. "You always have to go for something better."

Most of the calls she has been on have been about vehicle accidents outside the gate and medical calls. She is enthusiastic about knowing how to deal with a potential airplane crash. "I like dealing with planes. I make sure I know about the planes. That's what this department is here for; it's about taking care of the planes on the ramp," she said.

Although there is nothing she doesn't like about the job, she states it is a sacrifice being here for 24 hours in a row, when most people go home after 5 p.m.

That time together does create bonds. "In my shift we all are like a family. We like having a good time and we take care of each other."