'The fire service needs representation': Fairfield hires first female firefighter in 25 years

FAIRFIELD — Caitlin Clarkson Pereira is among the newest class of firefighter recruits, making her the department’s first female firefighter hire in 25 years and third overall.

“I am so humble and proud to be one of the new firefighters in Fairfield,” Pereira said. “It really is an incredible feeling to know that now I am a member of the fire department that I grew up idolizing so much.”

Pereira, a Fairfield native, joins fellow Fairfield Fire Department recruits Luke Hawthorne, of Mansfield; Michael Canil, of Bethel; and Matthew Rowan, of Trumbull. The four recently swore their oath, the department announced.

“It’s always an exciting thing for us welcoming these new recruits,” Deputy Chief Kyran Dunn said. “They’re a new part of our family.”

“We have had female firefighters that have worked seamlessly and honorably so we are very happy about having Caitlin Pereira as one of our newest hires,” Dunn added.

In 1987, Fairfield’s fire department hired Lauri Jepsen. Jespen would go on to spend 31 years with the department before retiring as a lieutenant in 2018. Firefighter Peggy Marlowe also worked for the department for about 12 years before retiring nearly 15 years ago.

Despite the presence of Jespen and Marlowe, Pereira never thought being a firefighter was a career path she could actually go down, although, it had always been her childhood dream.

As a young girl growing up in Fairfield, Pereira idolized the town’s firefighters. She had always been interested in fire services and with a natural passion for helping people, it seemed like a possible career path. However, as Pereira grew up, the lack of representation of women in fire services led to an unintentional realization that perhaps fire services wasn’t for her.

“I remember being in high school looking up the physical fitness requirements for the fire service and I started reading them and was intimidated right off the bat,” Pereira said. “I filed being a firefighter away in a folder of childhood dreams and that’s where it was going to stay.”

Pereira said that it can be really hard to aspire to be something that you don’t see in real life. Dunn agreed and said it is important the department does more recruitment and gets the message out that it is something women can do.

“A lot of times people go into vocations that there is a family member involved in,” Dunn said. “I think the lack of females traditionally in fire service didn’t help, but now that more females are getting into it and becoming mentors and role models for women I think it is going to happen.”

“For me, I had a family background and I always knew I would want to be a firefighter,” he added. “The women who have been hired have done really well so we’re hoping that situation does change and that females know that this is a great career and it’s certainly obtainable.”

Pereira initially chose a career path in education as she tried to follow her passion in helping others. However, as time went on she always felt that something was missing and that there was always something else that she wanted to do for people.

“I wanted people to expect me to go above and beyond and I truly believe that firefighters are the world’s greatest problem solvers — the ones that we look to in our moments of crisis,” Pereira said. “I think being a career firefighter is the epitome of a helper and it’s the best way to help so many people in a variety of different ways.”

Pereira said what ultimately made her finally go after the childhood dream was some advice she received from a few firefighters. When she first started to expressed what her dream had been, the firefighters said, “We need you.” It’s the same advice she would give to any women who wanted to be a firefighter now.

“The fire service needs representation,” Pereira said. “It’s not an easy path for sure. I worked really hard to get here and the other women who I am at the academy with have worked so hard to get where they are, but its certainly possible.”

There are 71 students in the current recruit class at the Connecticut Fire Academy, six of whom are women hailing from the towns of Fairfield, Ridgefield, Manchester and West Hartford. The academy doesn’t track the number of women its trained overall.

While the amount of female students could be considered small, Pereira said the potential that these women have on impacting their communities is something that can’t be overlooked.

“It is a huge point of pride and it’s very empowering,” Pereira said. “You never know who may be watching you or who you’re making and impression on. It’s very humbling to think that I might be somebody who is making an impression on a young girl some point down the road.”

Dunn said while Pereira is currently the only female firefighter at the department, it won’t be for long with the numbers of women getting into fire services increasing. In fact, Dunn said the next person on the fire department’s list who will probably be hired during the winter of 2022 is also a woman.