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Fighting fires and gender norms

Lynbrook Engine Company No. 1's lone female firefighter aims to help others

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On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jessica Kern, then 18, stood at the window of Tower Five of the World Trade Center, where she worked at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and witnessed the worst terrorist attack in American history. Fires erupted into vicious infernos, debris flew far and wide, and people leapt from the towers’ top floors.

Kern screamed and cried, “Get out, get out!” But like so many people that day, she felt helpless and afraid. She said she would never forget the brave men and women who acted in those moments, the firefighters who ran toward the flames, their heroism saving hundreds of lives.

Kern, now 38, continued to return to that day in her memory, and struggled with an insistent feeling in her gut —what that feeling was, though, she recalled, she could not decipher. In 2015, she moved to Lynbrook, and continued to work in New York City as a property manager. Each day, as she stepped off the Long Island Rail Road platform, her eyes were drawn across the street, to the big red letters of the Lynbrook Engine Company No. 1 firehouse.

The gnawing inside her grew by the day, and she finally came to terms with its meaning: She would become a volunteer firefighter. So, in January 2020, she walked into the fire station and registered for the fire training academy.

 

Engine Co.’s lone female firefighter

One year later, Kern remains the only female firefighter in Engine Co. No. 1, though there are female emergency medical technicians. She said that joining the Fire Department was her way of reconciling the traumatic events of her past and finally finding the right way to help others in need. “Things happen for a reason,” Kern said, “and it’s up to you to discover that reason and fulfill your purpose.”

Because she joined the department about two months before the onset of the pandemic, Kern’s training was slightly disrupted; however, she said the veteran firefighters helped her adjust to the new job, and she commended Mayor Alan Beach for his support of the LFD during the trying times in allowing them to use demolition sites for fire training. Even with a mask, and sometimes training over Zoom, Kern earned her firefighter badge within a month.

At the fire academy, Kern and fellow rookies learned to climb ladders, break through barriers, carry victims, navigate the fire truck and work as a team. She said the most difficult part of her job was wearing the heavy equipment, which can weigh up to 45 pounds.

“When you’re crawling on the ground and can’t see even a foot in front of you because there’s black smoke surrounding you, it can become really difficult to breathe,” Kern said. “These tall, muscular firemen make it look so easy, like they’re just wearing normal clothes,” she added with a laugh.

Kern, who is just 5 feet tall, is presented with some physical challenges that her male colleagues may not encounter. In addition to the hefty equipment, firefighters must hold massive hoses to extinguish house fires, and when high-pressured water streams through, a hose’s weight can climb to over 100 pounds.

“I would never say, ‘I can’t do that because I’m a woman,’’’ Kern said, “but I would also never put myself or anyone else in a dangerous position because I refused to back down.”

Kern said she is typically responsible for the smaller diameter hose, but other than this, she is held to the same standards as her male counterparts.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, only 8 percent of firefighters are women. Kern said she did not hesitate to join a male-dominated field.

“I had no apprehension whatsoever,” she said. “I always prescribe to the ‘fake it till you make it’ philosophy, so I try to tackle every challenge with confidence and optimism.” She further explained that as a former property manager, often working on construction sites, she is no stranger to being the only woman in a room full of men.

 

Paving the way in the LFD

Although the firemen welcomed Kern, she said some of her friends were skeptical about her pursuing volunteer firefighting. “People kept telling me, ‘I can’t believe they’re letting you join,’ and asking, ‘Is your husband OK with you being there?’ as if I needed his permission to join the Fire Department,” Kern said.

She shared that her husband, Brian, was her biggest supporter and encouraged her for years to go after her dream. Last August, Brian joined the LFD himself, and now, the two work side by side to fight fires and save lives.

Family plays a large role in Kern’s life. She has three children, Emaryst, 23, Jayden, 12, a student at South Middle School, and Bryelle, 5, a student at the Lynbrook Kindergarten Center. “My children and husband constantly inspire me to be better, and I hope that I do the same for them,” Kern said.

As a first-generation American, Kern said it is her “life mission” to do away with gender stereotypes and teach her children that they, too, can achieve anything they set their mind to. Kern’s parents emigrated from Ecuador nearly 40 years ago, and she was raised in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community in Brooklyn, which she described as a “cultural bubble”; she did not learn to speak English until entering elementary school, and even through high school, Kern felt more like she was living in Ecuador than America.

Kern explained that in her Latina culture, gender roles are a prominent structure of everyday life, and growing up, she did not see any women challenge this “separate spheres” custom. “I didn’t have a strong female role model to tell me I had a voice,” she said. “When I told my mom I was joining the Fire Department,” she said, ‘But you’re a girl,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I am, Mom.’”

Because of her upbringing, Kern finds strength in holding a position in a male-dominated field, and she encourages more women to join the Fire Department,  too. She remains connected with her Latina culture and takes pride in her heritage, despite some of its more traditional views.

Lynbrook High School senior Jenna Hendrickson is enrolled in the Essentials of Firefighting, a class taught by the Nassau County Fire Service Academy. In March, she joined the LFD as a probationary firefighter, which, she said, has helped shape her into the person she is today.

“Being able to help out the community in ways that others aren’t able to do makes me feel that I have a special role in this tight-knit community, even if the role doesn’t fit people’s idea of the typical woman,” Hendrickson said. Hendrickson added that she admires Kern, as both a woman and a firefighter.

Kern’s colleagues and superiors commend her, too.

“Jessica joined Engine Company No. 1 with a driven passion to serve, protect and be a part of something big in the village,” said Ryan Tachiera, first lieutenant of Engine Co. No. 1. “Her positive attitude, hard work and constant training has made her a valuable asset in the fire service.”

Kern said she hopes to serve in the LFD for years to come, fulfilling her decades-long yearning to help others.

“Sometimes the things that don’t make sense immediately become clear later in life,” she said. She has turned her experience on 9/11 into a lesson of hope and resiliency, a mantra to find the good in all things evil. “No matter how good or bad things are going,” she said, “there’s always a lesson to be learned.”

Any man or woman intersted in joining the LFD can call its headquarters at (516) 599-1547 on any Sunday.