By Joel Phelps
At 20 years old, Hannah Fenocchi has made Arkadelphia history as the youngest female firefighter. Fenocchi started her career in saving lives at 18 as a volunteer firefighter. With two years now under her turnout belt, she still gets a rush of adrenaline every time she responds to a call alongside her fellow firemen at the Arkadelphia Fire Department. The Arkadelphian sat down with Fenocchi at AFD Station 1 on Caddo Street to find out what it’s like to be the only female in the department.
How did you get your start as a firefighter?
It started out as a joke (laughs). During my freshman year at college, Lt. Bo Bishop got me into a PPE (personal protective equipment) class, and then the basics, like how to put turnouts on, what kind of equipment we work with. I was doing it for giggles, basically, but they were like, ‘You should apply now.’ It was something to add to my nursing transcript. Finally I realized I do need a job. I’ve absolutely loved it since.
Her father, David Fenocchi, is a longtime volunteer AFD fireman. Hannah says her father was instrumental in her decision to become a firefighter:
I would go to hose testing or hydrant testing during the summer, along with some other stuff. He wouldn’t usually take me on the interstate for wrecks because of how dangerous it is. But if there was a house fire, I’d be like ‘Dad, can I go?’ My senior year of high school I just asked him to come wake me up because I just wanted to go watch.
What is the most unusual call you’ve ever responded to?
My first couple of weeks the department had its worst week in a very long time. There were five fatalities that week. There was a controlled burn downtown, and after that it was crazy — we just had calls all the time.
But, honestly, it didn’t affect me as bad as I thought it would. I think what got me the most was if they had been two minutes or a minute later leaving the house, or left a minute sooner, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s kind of a humbling thing, because that’s how quickly something can happen. What if they would have just slowed down a little bit? It puts it into perspective how quickly things can change and how important it is to just wear your seatbelt or just slow down and enjoy; there’s no reason to keep hurrying. I tell my friends that. There’s a reason everything happens, and I think that’s one of the big things that helped me get through this.
How hot does it really get at a house fire?
Really hot. It feels like your face is melting off. The majority of the time I have makeup is when a fire happens. It literally feels like your face is melting off. I think what gets you the most is how your adrenaline gets you. At first you think, This isn’t that bad, and then it starts wearing off and you think It’s getting a little hot in here. The weight of all your equipment gets to you, too, with the air packs and all the protective equipment you have on, which makes it even hotter. You sweat so bad! I’m completely soaked after it. It gets hot, really hot.
What do firefighters do between fires?
I usually work on the weekends. If I’m at the station I’m either doing homework, sleeping or watching a movie. They actually do work — maintenance on stuff around the station, teach fire safety at the schools or daily truck checks. We’ll have fire meetings every other Monday. A lot of times we’ll just hang out, but a majority of the time they’re actually working on something. They’ll do maintenance on the trucks, but don’t ask me about the trucks — I have no idea about the mechanical side, just about the equipment we use that’s on the trucks.
What is a regular shift like?
The full-time guys do 24 hours on and 48 hours off. We have three companies: A, B and C, with volunteers assigned to each company. If there’s a structure fire, it’s “all call” but wrecks, depending on the severity, a certain company gets called. There are three people on a shift at all times: two at Station 1, and one at Station 2. I’m free a majority of the time compared to all the volunteers who have full-time jobs and can’t get away, so unless I’m in nursing class I’ll always respond to a call.
What’s it like being the only female in the department?
I love it. All the guys are like my brothers. They joke with me like they’re my brother or they’re my dad. I know I can call them if I need help or if I need help with someone, and they can always call me if they need help. Especially the hard calls that are just rough emotionally. They’re always able to call me or text me, ‘Hey how are you doing?’ and I can do the same. I know a lot of women can’t handle it, but you have to realize that you joke; it’s only men and they all joke and do stupid stuff. I also give them the women’s perspective on life whenever they need that.
Are there any challenges being a female firefighter?
I don’t know if it’s because most of them already knew me coming on, but they have welcomed me with open arms. The amount of teaching they do is amazing, whether it’s on a scene or here at the station. I haven’t had any issues with being the only female. They always make fun of me because nobody else worries about what their hair looks like or their makeup sweating off.
Chicks seem to dig firefighters. Do you think the opposite is true in your case?
(Laughs loudly) I think it’s funny to tell guys I’m a firefighter, because at first they don’t believe it. When I show up on scenes I’m in this outfit: A sweatshirt, track shorts, wool socks and Chacos. That’s how I show up to most calls. When we responded to the Dollar Tree, at first the police weren’t going to let me in — I had just gotten off work and was in scrubs, and they were saying, ‘Everybody needs out’ but the guys here said ‘No, no, no: she’s with us.’ Guys don’t believe it at first. But I don’t know if that’s ever attracted anybody to me.
What advice would you give to a young lady who wants to join the field of emergency response?
Just go for it. Don’t be scared to get in there and get your hands dirty. There will be hard times, but there are a lot of rewarding ones, too. There needs to be more women first responders to keep all these men in check.
What are your goals?
I love nursing, but I also love firefighting. It’s so much fun. It’s just so thrilling. Nursing is the end goal right now. I want to be an ER nurse, working wrecks and the traumas, being in the back of an ambulance.
Who has been your biggest influence?
My dad. He’s been my number one support through the whole thing. I will say he was very hesitant at first seeing that his oldest daughter was going into a fire. I’m one of those that’ll just bail off right in there. I’m always saying ‘Let’s go’ unless they tell me not to. I’m not scared of that kind of stuff. The more I’ve gotten comfortable firefighting, the more comfortable he’s gotten.