Girls power through to lead Nassau Junior Firefighters
Floral Park Centre teenager Sofia Pierno's first inkling of the value and fulfillment that comes from helping others came from watching her cousin, a volunteer firefighter and Army veteran.
Pierno's cousin, who died in 2020, started in the FDNY's explorer program before serving four years in the U.S. Army and then becoming a Mount Vernon firefighter.
Now, the 15-year-old Floral Park sophomore said she is committed to carrying on his legacy of public service as a volunteer firefighter, while helping to carve out a path for other girls to do the same.
“He was my biggest inspiration serving his country and his community,” Pierno said. “People said we have the same laugh and look alike. I want to do him proud being in the fire service.”
WHAT TO KNOW
- The Nassau Junior Firefighters have voted in their first all-female executive board.
- Recruiting more girls is an integral part of addressing a shortage of volunteers on Long Island and nationwide.
- Nationally, only about 11% of volunteer firefighters are female, including EMS workers.
She's well on her way to doing that as a member of the first all-female executive board of the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association.
Pierno and the other board members hope to get more girls like themselves involved in the program — part of the next generation of volunteer firefighters during a shortage on Long Island and across the country.
“It’s important for recruitment and retention,” said Jerry Presta, who advises the board and serves as chairman of the association.
“What would you rather have, someone coming off the street or someone coming knowing exactly how to go up a ladder?” Presta said. "We’re struggling in New York and around the country to find volunteers. These new seats get youths involved. They’re our future.”
40,000 fewer volunteers
There are about 80,000 volunteer firefighters in New York State, nearly 40,000 fewer than 20 years ago, due to an aging generation of firefighters and the difficulty of finding replacements, said John D'Alessandro, secretary of the state Firefighters Association.
The volunteer service is working to break the perception that firefighting is primarily for younger men, D'Alessandro said.
"In the last 15 years, I think the perception doesn't match with the reality. As we've seen the numbers decline, we have to do a better job to communicate to everyone," he said. "All we have are open arms to say, be one of us, committed to serve our communities."
Pierno said she's well-aware of the challenges ahead as she works toward becoming a full-fledged firefighter. But she won't be going it alone.
“I have lot of people telling me I can do whatever I can put my mind to,” Pierno said. “It’s very hard being a female in a department, but knowing I have a group of female leaders around my age is amazing, and I’m not by myself.”
At the FDNY, overseen by its first female commissioner, Laura Kavanagh, female firefighters make up only 2% of firefighters, according to a city report.
Nationally, only about 11% of volunteer firefighters are female, including EMS workers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Programs like Nassau Junior Firefighters are "a wonderful way" to encourage more girls to sign up and volunteer, said Kimberley Quiros, spokeswoman for the National Volunteer Fire Council, based in Washington, D.C.
“Women make up half our population, but only make up a small percentage of the fire service. This is very important for fostering the next generation of firefighters," Quiros said. "We have an aging volunteer service, and it’s more important to get everybody to open the ranks. The diversity of the population should match the department.”
Journey starts with training
For Pierno, the journey that she hopes will lead her to become an EMT like her cousin started at the Nassau County Junior Firefighters' Camp Fahrenheit. Over the five-day course, the teenage trainees and fire Explorers learn about fire safety, search and rescue operations and other aspects of firefighting, like operating hoses and hooking them up to fire trucks.
After finishing the course, Pierno ran for the Nassau Junior Firefighters’ executive board.
The Nassau Junior Firefighters include 900 teens representing 48 fire companies in the county. In January, members elected their first female board that includes Pierno; president Kyra Kozey, 17, of Syosset; Jia Walia 16, also of Syosset, who represents the Hicksville Fire Department; Khadeejah Memon, 16, of East Norwich, and Samara Mehta, 17, of Jericho, both of whom represent departments in their hamlets; and Audrey Sasso, 15, of Woodmere, representing the Hewlett Fire Department.
The trainees typically enter the program at 12 and can become junior firefighters who can join as a volunteer firefighter or start EMS training by the time they are 17 or 18, Presta said.
Kozey, who was recently named National Junior Firefighter of the Year, was elected president in her second year on the board. In her role, Kozey leads board meetings and helps members plan events for the junior firefighters.
An inclusive program
The junior program is inclusive for both girls and boys, Kozey said, adding that she feels respected by her peers after starting out as only one of three girls among the 40 junior firefighters in the department.
“The first female board is a very empowering feeling. We can do whatever our young male counterparts do, and showing that inspires a lot of other young women to be part of this,” Kozey said. “I think a big point for me was actually knowing I could do the same thing they could do. I can be just as strong as the guys, and being able to teach that and seeing a woman has been through this is great for our community.”
Maria Tejera, a Syosset firefighter and EMT, is the lone female in her department. Tejera said of Kozey: "I think she’s a role model for her generation … It's getting someone outside their comfort zone and diversifying the fire service and getting women integrated into the department."
Tejera said she was welcomed into the department and proved "to others I was worthy to be there."
"The guys are like my extended family, and they think of me like just another member of the team," she said. "At first, I was unsure and I was stepping into something new and all-male dominated, but I think once you get comfortable, I didn't know why was I scared to start."