For the first time ever, a female leads the Rockville Centre Junior Fire Department.
“I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life,” Captain Erika Brancato, 17, said of firefighting. She made history when she was elected to the role last month after four years in the department, and was slated to be sworn in on Tuesday.
But her involvement in the field started as a small child. Although the Brancatos live in Rockville Centre, her father, Robert, has been a member of the Baldwin Fire Department since 2003, acting as chief in 2013. Brancato recalled listening to her dad’s pager, riding with him on his fire truck — where she enjoyed pushing random buttons — and hanging out with him at the firehouse.
“A lot of people knew who I was at first because I was with him,” Brancato laughed, “and then people started recognizing me on my own.”
It wasn’t always a playful time, however, when tagging along with her father. In 2011, Brancato was riding with him when the fire department received a call from a woman whose baby was in cardiac arrest. When they arrived to the scene, 10-year-old Brancato ran to hold the door open for the first responders rushing into the home, even though she wasn’t supposed to get involved.
Knowing she wanted to serve the community like her father, she joined the Rockville Centre Junior Fire Department in 2014.
Charlie Krahm, captain of Defender Hose Company No. 1, founded the department in 2011. During training, firefighters teach the juniors — ages 13 to 17 — how to utilize the gear and tools such as the breathing mask, hoses, ropes and ladders. They also run drills, during which they rescuing people trapped in water. “It’s all fun,” Brancato noted.
The members also attend local events — usually teaching the children about firefighting — participate in fundraisers and march in many of the parades in Rockville Centre, such as last month’s St. Patrick’s Parade.
“They taught me how to improve myself by helping others,” Brancato said.
Over the years, 15 junior members have transitioned to the fire department, according to Fire Chief Brian Cook. The program helps build leadership skills and shows members how to be comfortable working with people, he added, noting that Brancato embodies that mission.
An important duty of Brancato’s is to entice the juniors into eventually becoming full-fledge firefighters, and she is quite good at it, according to Krahm. “She has good insight on how to keep everyone focused and interested in the activities,” Krahm told the Herald, noting that it’s no easy task.
When Brancato first joined four years ago, she and another member were the only girls. Now, there are 10 girls among the 36 members. “They see there’s a girl captain and they’re like ‘Oh! I can do that too!’“ Brancato said of some of the younger females interested in firefighting. She added that at the installation dinner last month, a number of female firefighters from the Rockville Centre Fire Department came over and expressed how proud they were of her.
In addition to being elected as captain by her peers, Brancato was previously elected as the organization’s first female officer a couple years ago. She moved on to become the group’s first lieutenant three months ago before landing in her current role.
“She jumped at becoming an officer without even knowing she would be the first,” said her mother, Caroline, adding that her daughter is outgoing, friendly and likes getting involved. “She’s your typical happy-go-lucky high school senior.”
Brancato will remain as captain until she turns 18 in September. “It’s an honor to be the first female captain of the Rockville Centre Junior Fire Department,” she said. “… I will lead them and guide them until I age out.”
After graduating from South Side High School, she said she plans on attending Nassau Community College for two years while also working with the Rockville Centre Fire Department. Brancato added she eventually intends to go away to school to become a speech therapist.
“She’s been a part of it her whole life and now she’s officially involved,” Robert told the Herald. “She can do a lot in the fire department if she chooses to, but it will could lead her to a career in one way or another.”
Brancato especially enjoys helping children and said she envisions herself working with the Junior Fire Department as an advisor in the future. She is well on her way, Cook said, noting that she always takes the initiative to help her fellow juniors progress.
“She has a lot of drive, she’s willing to do what needs to be done in order to get stuff completed, she’s a pleasure to have and she deserves everything she’s earned so far,” he said. “She’s been an asset.”