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‘Just go for it': N.Y. fire department’s first female chief focuses on recruitment

Pine Hill Fire Department Chief Jessica Calandra looks at recruitment, morale and EMS challenges in the community

By Natalie Brophy
The Buffalo News

CHEEKTWOAGA, N.Y. — When Jessica Calandra was a student at Cheektowaga Central High School, her grandmother almost died.

She was coming home from a doctors appointment when she went into cardiac arrest, Calandra recalled. First responders were able to resuscitate her with CPR, and against all odds, Calandra’s grandmother survived.

“You’d never know that this happened other than the fact that she’s got a defibrillator implanted in her chest,” Calandra said.

That incident was what propelled Calandra, when she was 19, to become a volunteer firefighter with Cheektowaga’s Pine Hill Fire Department, one of 11 volunteer fire companies in the town.

Now, 10 years later, Calandra is the first female fire chief in Cheektowaga’s history. She was sworn in earlier this year following two years as assistant chief under longtime Pine Hill Chief Lenny Luh.

And Calandra is far from the only woman serving at the Pine Hill Fire Department. She is not even the only woman from her family serving in the department.

Of the 28 active members, seven are women. And one of those women is her mother, Connie Calandra.

Connie Calandra joined Pine Hill several years before her daughter did, as a way to pay it forward after first responders saved her mother.

“The fire department was coming around for their annual fundraiser, knocking on doors asking for donations and my mom was like, ‘Sorry, I don’t have much to give,’ ” Calandra recalled.

The firefighters told Connie they always need more volunteers, and she ended up joining. Now, she is the department’s EMS captain, president and a commissioner on the board.

“We’re very women-dominated over here,” Calandra said.

Having her mother by her side has helped Calandra weather the challenges that come with being a woman in a male-dominated world of firefighting.

“I think that my challenges were more internalized, realizing that I’m the one or one of the few women in the room,” she said. “I think that my experience is probably different from other people’s because I have (my mom) looking out for me, as I’m here answering calls and around all the guys and stuff. We have monthly chief meetings for the town. I’m sitting in a room and I’m the only woman there. So, I think that’s the one time I really think about it.”

Calandra plans to make a difference in the department, wanting to leave the firehouse better than when she started as chief, she said.

Her immediate goals include increasing the number of out-of-department training classes members take and boosting morale.

In 2023, Pine Hill firefighters answered 636 calls. Ten years ago, when Calandra first joined, the number was in the 400s, she said.

Typically, between five and seven members respond to each call.

“Which is great, but we’re dealing with the same amount of members and more calls than we’ve ever had,” Calandra said. “So if we can increase the amount of time that people are around or the amount of people that are here, it’ll really help us out.”

The additional calls tend to be for minor health issues that don’t require an ambulance. Or people not knowing how to “fend for themselves,” Calandra said.

“I think there needs to be a big public education push about what emergency medical services are here for,” she said. “If you’re dying or could be dying, call 911 for an ambulance, but a lot of your more minor stuff like, ‘I stubbed my toe’ or ‘I need to get this test run,’ that doesn’t require you to call us.”

Recruiting more members would also help with the increased call volume. But recruitment is one of the main challenges facing the department, Calandra said. And it’s not just Pine Hill or the other volunteer departments in Cheektowaga. It’s a nationwide issue, she added.

“The people who are around a lot and are answering the majority of the calls are getting burnt out,” Calandra said.

To try to attract more volunteers, the department has focused on having a social media presence to connect with the community.

As chief, Calandra is still a volunteer — as all the other members are — and has to juggle her responsibilities at the firehouse with her job and life.

She has a full-time job as an emergency room nurse at Buffalo General Medical Center. She also works part-time as an EMT for AMR ambulances.

“Everybody’s got their job that they’re working 40 hours a week, and they’ve got their kids’ sports and activities that they’re running around to, and they’ve got family life,” Calandra said. “We’re very strong on the fact that you and your family and your job have to come first, and then you give us what you have left.”

When Calandra first joined the department in 2013, she was going to University at Buffalo for pre-med. She was mostly interested in the EMS experience, but she ended up falling in love with firefighting, too, she said.

Now, being a firefighter is her passion. Calandra hopes other women who are interested in becoming firefighters will take the leap and discover their passion, as well.

“Just go for it,” Calandra said. “You’re never going to know what its like until you try it. For me, it’s opened up a big world of possibilities. All my friends are firefighters now. I’ve grown a second family. But I think that as long as you want to do it, go for it. The passion behind something is what really matters.

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