‘I’m living my dream’: Gisele Fetterman, volunteer firefighter
Before she could even speak the language after immigrating to America, the wife of the junior Pennsylvania senator dreamed of joining the fire service
It was a push-in ceremony for an apparatus at a local station that captured then-third-grader Gisele Fetterman’s attention and sparked her interest in the fire service.
“My first great memory after moving to this country was in our neighborhood in Queens, New York,” she said. “They had a new apparatus and there was this big celebration with cotton candy and popcorn and hot dogs, and all the kids got to touch the buttons.”
The event left a lasting impression on her – not just about the profession but the sense of community it fostered.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is so cool,’ and feeling so welcomed,” she recalled. “I’m in a new country, I don’t really speak the language, I don’t know many people, but I felt so welcomed there.”
It was that sense of belonging that solidified her dream of one day becoming a firefighter – a dream she would set to the side for a few decades before seeing realized at the age of 41.
‘This is the right time’
Just as her husband, John, was wrapping up his 2022 campaign for Pennsylvania’s junior senate seat, Fetterman felt a calling to serve. Even amidst the chaos of a statewide election and the spotlight it brings, the pull to give back more to her community was too great.
“It was a really busy time,” Fetterman said. “We were dealing with health things, and everything was happening, but I thought, ‘This is the right time to do it.’”
Or, to put it another way, Fetterman said, “The time is never right, so it’s always right,” and shared that the experience has been a teaching moment for her family.
“I think, as women and moms, we put away so much of our dreams because we know other people depend on us and we prioritize that,” she said. “But I think it’s important to do both and find that balance.”
‘I know 99% of the doors I’m walking into’
Joining the Rivers Edge Volunteer Fire Department is a natural progression of Fetterman’s commitment to serving and immersing herself within the community. In 2012, she founded Free Store 15104 in Braddock, Pennsylvania, which accepts donations from retailers and individuals for people in need to come and shop for free.
“I’ve run the Free Store for the last 10 years, and regularly we have families that will come in and say, ‘We just went through a fire and lost everything and now we’re here to rebuild,’” Fetterman said. “And now I know they’re coming because I was at that fire.”
Because of her store, which she runs out of a shipping container that was previously headed for a landfill, many of the calls she responds to as a firefighter are personal.
“I know 99% of the doors that I’m walking into,” she said. “These are families that I’ve been serving for the last 15 years that I’ve lived in this community.”
‘I had a call. I came home. I cried for five hours.’
Fetterman’s husband made headlines when he took time off to prioritize his mental health after winning his Pennsylvania senate seat in 2022. Mental health is an ongoing topic of discussion at her station as well.
“If we have a bad call, they’ll say, ‘Let’s go back and talk about it,’” she said. “My captain, and my whole department, really makes an effort to say, ‘Let’s talk this through. What was hard? What could we have done differently? What stayed with us?’ so that we don’t continue to carry that.”
Still, the emotional aspect of calls is often difficult to reckon with, she said.
“I had a call. I came home. I cried for five hours straight,” she said. “I mean, in the moment I kept it together, but when you get home and think it through, it’s a lot to think about, and looking at these folks who have been in the service for 30, 40 years, and what they must have seen and carried.”
‘The fire service is for you’
One of the most memorable parts of the academy for Fetterman was the unconscious rescue training.
“I was like, ‘How do I take a 200-pound unconscious man out the window?’ In my mind, I thought, ‘I can’t do that. I could never do that,’” she said. “But the instructor said, ‘Look, we’ll teach you the techniques where you can do this.’”
After successfully completing the training, the sense of empowerment was overwhelming, she said.
“We can do these things,” Fetterman said. “We can do hard things. We can do big things. We just have to really want to.”
Particularly as a woman in the fire service, Fetterman hopes to inspire young girls who see her on the fireground to consider a career as a firefighter.
“At every single call, there’s a little girl that comes up and is like, ‘Oh my god, a girl firefighter. Can I put on your helmet?’” she said.
And she always obliges.
“I put it on them and we take pictures,” she said. “I would’ve loved to have seen more of that growing up; it’s like we’re still so outnumbered in the fire service.”
Fetterman makes the case to women considering joining the field that “the fire service is for you,” she said. “We need more women. We need more diverse thoughts and experiences.”
Regardless of your other life roles, she said, volunteering your time for the betterment of your community is worth it.
“I can be the best example for my kids and show them that you can continue to pursue your dreams, no matter what age you are, or what’s going on in life or how chaotic it is, and that following your dreams is still really important,” she added.
‘The time is there, we just have to prioritize it’
For Fetterman, becoming a firefighter is seeing a dream realized – one she never gave up on.
“What better way to serve your community than to be a volunteer firefighter?” she asked.
It was a rhetorical question.
“If you’re someone who just moved to a new place, you don’t know where you fit in, seek out the fire department,” Fetterman said. “If I ever move again, my first question will be, ‘How close to the fire station?’”
As a mother of three, a community activist, business owner and spouse of a sitting U.S. senator, Fetterman believes if she can find the time to volunteer, anyone can.
“It’s about prioritizing,” she said. “The time is there. We just have to prioritize it for the things that matter.”