Zoe Spielman remembers vividly her first call as a volunteer firefighter.
The alarm kept tripping. The noise was distressing. Residents were anxious following the afternoon thunderstorm.
“I helped with comforting the people within the nursing home,” recalled Spielman, 18, a senior at Carlisle High School. “They were out of their rooms and in one area.”
As Spielman worked to calm folks down, her dad Michael had joined other senior firefighters in trying to figure out why the automatic fire alarm would not reset properly.
“We thought the building may have been struck by lightning,” Spielman said.
A Carlisle-area native, she lives with her mother in North Middleton Township but also routinely visits her father. Her parents had been separated all her life.
“My dad is a lieutenant for the fire service in the District of Columbia,” Spielman said. “He is a chief at a local fire department. Growing up within the service made me interested in it.”
Many are drawn in by the excitement and opportunity to help others. They stay for the close-knit ties that develop from having to work together in the face of trauma and tragedy.
“I’ve made a lot of friendships throughout the fire service because you run calls with multiple companies,” Spielman said. “I know I have a family within the fire service I can always reach out to. They are always there for me.”
Spielman was 14 when she became a junior firefighter with the Buchanan Valley Fire Department. Her ranking as a junior member enables her to do anything a senior firefighter can do except enter structure fires.
“I ran hose lines and put out brush fires,” she said. “I have done a lot with the EMS helping people who had medical emergencies, whether it’s getting their information or helping with basic bandaging or making them comfortable until the ambulance arrives.”
In several cases, Spielman has been asked to ease the anxiety of a child whose parent is suddenly experiencing a medical emergency.
“Their parents don’t have a disease. ... It’s a one-time occurrence,” she said. “They don’t understand what is wrong. They just need that reassurance that everything is going to be OK in the long run.”
Her work with Buchanan Valley has earned Spielman the title of Junior Firefighter of her department in 2014 and 2016. She was treasurer of the program in 2015 and 2016 and president in 2017.
In 2016, Spielman was named Pennsylvania Junior Firefighter of the Year. “I didn’t think I would get it being a female teenager,” she said. “I was expecting someone who was diehard devoted to their department to get it.”
Though females are becoming more common in the fire service, they are still in the minority and chauvinism continues in the ranks. Sometimes it shows itself when a male asks a female to pull heavy equipment off the fire apparatus. “They would second guess themselves and say ‘You’re too weak to get that,’” Spielman said.
Just as it is with gender, there are stereotypes for age. “It’s the whole teenager aspect that we don’t know what we’re doing, but teenagers get the same training as adults. We know what we are doing, we are just not as experienced so we might make a mistake here and there.”
Some adults are accepting of that and take the time to help the junior firefighters learn from their errors. The life lessons that come from hands-on experience reinforced in Spielman a love for science.
Growing up, she was always drawn more to math and science than English or history. This interest took a different turn when her sixth-grade science teacher encouraged her to participate in a science fair.
That first experiment involved comparing the difference between plants grown in microwaved water to plants grown in tap water. The microwaved plants grew better because the radiation neutralized some of the chemicals in tap water. Spielman has been involved in every science fair through her senior year.
As a junior in 2017, she placed first in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science state competition and was the earth and space science category winner in the regional competition. Her winning experiment was a test of plant growth in unburned soil compared to growth in soil scorched by brush fire.
After high school, Spielman plans to attend college to major in environmental science with a focus on soil and water. Her dream job would be to work in either wildfire management and prevention or stream water quality management.
While she sees herself continuing as a volunteer firefighter, she is not interested in making it her career. Her passion for science builds upon her desire to help others and the satisfaction she feels in a job well done.