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Home : News : News
NEWS | Feb. 19, 2020

Women’s History Month: Firefighting women aim to protect, inspire others

By Lori A. Bultman 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Firefighting can be a tough profession. Long days, hard work, strenuous conditions and dangerous situations; it might be an impossible challenge for some, but several women at Joint Base San Antonio have risen through the ranks to become some of the best fire emergency responders in the area.

Firefighter Cheyenne Opiana

When Cheyenne Opiana went to career day at her middle school in Oˋahu, Hawaii, little did she know it would set her on a path to achieving more than she ever imagined.  

“When I was in the seventh grade, I saw my first female firefighter. She was all in blue; she was so professional looking. It was the only girl I had ever seen in a fire uniform,” Opiana said as she walked through the engine bay at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s Fire Station 8. “I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t know we could do that.’ It really made me think about what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Opiana, who felt the need to be connected to the community at an early age, thought firefighting was the opportunity she needed to do just that.

“What really drew me to be a firefighter was seeing the firefighters that day; it was like a family. I yearned for that, the family atmosphere,” Opiana said. “No matter how old you get, you will always need that feeling of family, and that is what the fire department is to me, another family.”

Her path to becoming a firefighter was not an easy one. The young teen was put into the foster system during her sophomore year of high school and was bounced between shelters in Oˋahu.

One day at a shelter, Opiana said she heard that one of the case workers was looking for kids who knew they could be more than what we were. So, she buckled down and worked hard to get the attention of that case worker.

“I got straight A’s; I played six different sports,” she said.

The case worker eventually took the teen into her home and motivated her to attain her goals.

“She is the one that encouraged me to enter the military,” Opiana said. “My sister, who was in a Reserve Officer Training Program, also encouraged me.”

During her junior year of high school, while still debating on whether to join the military or become a firefighter, Opiana suddenly found the push she needed to make the decision.

“I was in my English class when the towers came down on 9/11. I saw the firefighters go into the towers, and that was the second calling to me to do more research on how to become a firefighter and be in the military at the same time.”

After meeting with an Air Force recruiter, the young high school graduate was disheartened when he said there were no firefighting jobs available, but, to her surprise, he called her the next morning to let her know there was a firefighting job available.  

“I remember crying when the recruiter called and told me there was a firefighter opening,” she said. “Getting that job was a huge accomplishment for me.”

Opiana completed her enlistment in the Air Force, and spent two years in the Army before joining the JBSA Fire Emergency Services team. She has completed her Associate’s Degree in Environmental Emergency Services and is working on her bachelor’s degree. Opiana was recognized as the JBSA Firefighter of the Year in 2019.  

After serving her country as a firefighter for 13 years, Opiana’s advice to anyone who might want to pursue a career in firefighting is to see themselves as any other firefighter.

“Your ability to succeed is really dependent on your character and your attitude, and how you see yourself. I see myself as any other firefighter, and I love to share my love for this field,” she said. “I like to say, I live, eat and breathe fire.”

Lead Firefighter Rayna Dempsey

Rayna Dempsey, lead firefighter at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Station 4, decided on a career in firefighting early in life. She has been a firefighter since enlisting in the Air Force in 1992, and continued serving her country as a civilian firefighter at JBSA after her initial enlistment.

“When I was a kid, I lived in New Jersey, and there was a fire station right down the street from my grandparent’s house. They had a truck and engines, and when they got a call, and they got a lot, my parents had a picture window in the front of the house, and I would watch and wave at them as they came flying down the street.

“As I got older, and we had moved to a small Ohio town, again, with a fire station nearby, I decided to go visit,” Dempsey said. After seeing how the firefighters had such a big impact on people’s lives, Dempsey decided this was the career for her.

“When someone calls the fire department, or 911, they are probably having the worst day of their life. Then, we show up and it is satisfying to be able to make a positive difference,” she said. “They want you to make it better; make it not hurt, make it not burn, and we might be able to make it better. We don’t always have positive outcomes, but we do our best.”

Dempsey said her family supports her career choice, even though they might not understand it completely.

“My mom is in a state of denial about what I do,” Dempsey said with a smile. “She would prefer to believe I sit behind a desk, but I love this job. Every day is different. I live here as much as I live in my own house, and I have been doing this for 28 years. I don’t ever know what is going to happen in the next five minutes, or the next 20 minutes. It is new every day.”

A testament to Dempsey’s skill and dedication to helping others was her recent recognition in the Air Force FES (Fire Emergency Services) Quarterly, published by the Pentagon.

On Nov. 12, 2019, Dempsey, her station chief and a fellow firefighter responded to a call regarding an unresponsive wounded warrior in his dormitory. The team was able to regain a pulse and breathing in the patient and, after a paramedic administered medication, their continued life-saving efforts stabilized the patient. The newsletter featured the team as an example to others of “Leading from the Front,” and attributed their early intervention and early defibrillation for saving the warrior’s life.  

“We will do whatever we need to do,” Dempsey said humbly. “We don’t quit until the job is done. Sometimes, just holding a patient’s hand reassures them that someone is there for them, and they are going to be alright.”

Her advice to young ladies who think firefighting, or any other nontraditional career, might be right them, is to go for it.

“You do you,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this, because you can do this. If there is someone telling me I can’t do something, that is straight up motivation for me to prove them wrong.”

As Dempsey rounds out her career, she looks forward to seeing future women firefighters follow in her footsteps, just as she is thankful for those who came before her.

“I feel fortunate that I have been able to pave the way,” she said proudly. “There were women before me who paved the way, and now I have paved the way and made things a little better for the women firefighters of the future.”

Recognizing the contributions of women in the United States annually began with National Women’s History Week in 1980 and was expanded by Congress in 1986 to include the entire month of March.