Melissa Cracknell and Emerson Curtis

One wants to help people. The other escaped a fire in her home. Both took on grueling training to become firefighters, a dangerous career requiring a quick mind and nerves of steel, plus physical strength and endurance.

Melissa Cracknell, a recent graduate of the fire academy at Lamar Institute of Technology in Beaumont, Texas, has applied to work for the city’s fire department. In its 137-year history, only seven women have served, counting the current fire chief.

When only 6 years old, another Texan, Emerson Curtis, awoke to flames engulfing the family home. Her mother grabbed and carried her sister outside, with Curtis running behind them. The family escaped, but the incident stayed with her — so much so that Curtis enrolled in the Lyndon B. Johnson Fire Academy in Austin. She’s now a freshman at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, on a full merit scholarship. While studying chemical engineering and Spanish, Curtis says firefighting is in her blood.

“I don’t know exactly what I will do with my engineering degree, but I would love to use it to better the fire service in some way,” Curtis explains. “Firefighting is a passion of mine. I love everything about it. I love the people, the physical aspects, the fun skills and drills that I’ve done hundreds of times. I know I will find my way back to firefighting.”

For Cracknell, wanting to give back to her community led to a visit to a fire station, where the camaraderie and teamwork appealed to her. She currently works for Christus St. Elizabeth Health and Wellness Center in management and as a personal trainer. While her main goal is to work for the Beaumont Police Department, she’s also applied to Beaumont Fire and Rescue.

For both, being female in this male-dominated field comes with challenges.

“Some of the physical tasks that you have to complete as a firefighter are hard on the upper body, and as a female, those tasks can be challenging,” Curtis says. “As a female firefighter, you have to prove yourself and make sure everyone knows they can count on you when they need to.”

To pass the firefighters’ Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), recruits must complete a series of physical challenges. One involves wearing a vest weighing 75 pounds. The tests are tough, regardless of gender.

Cracknell has worked as a personal trainer for 10 years. When not facing the rigors of firefighter courses, she continues cross-fit endurance and strength training. As a child with two older brothers, Cracknell did whatever she could to keep up, and that drive carried over into this career path. It also helped her place fifth in the nation in SkillsUSA’s postsecondary Firefighting competition, she says.

“I knew what I was getting into, so I dedicated myself to training, and it ended up paying off. There are some things that are harder than others for females … but [training] helped me to overcome a lot of things and face a lot of fears.”

Firefighting requires a sharp mind, and Cracknell has found herself in training situations that helped her learn how to make good split-second decisions.

Cadets face staged fires in a pitch-black, five-bedroom home. Instructors, who stay with the cadets and guide them, set each room on fire and present challenges such as creating obstacles with furniture.

Making life-saving decisions

“They just throw different scenarios at us each time,” Cracknell explains, “so we’re not used to the same thing. They want us to make quick decisions but, at the same time, make smart decisions, because in a real fire, you are going to rely back on your training. …

“You just have to make snap decisions. I mean, you know there is a body lying there. Are you going to pull the body out first and then fight the fire? And, with car wrecks, you’re going to have to make quick decisions on how to get the person out and get them to safety. It’s pretty challenging mentally, too.”

Running into a burning building is a scary concept. In the scenarios Cracknell’s experienced, she says the nervousness goes out the window when somebody is inside. “Your adrenaline pumps. You want to get that person out. That is my main thought as I go in there: You have to save this person or property if you can.”

For Curtis, being an emergency responder comes with a great amount of responsibility, and that’s the hardest part.

“Knowing that someone else’s life is in your hands is daunting,” she says. “But it’s also exhilarating, and it makes the field worth getting into. Being able to be around interesting, courageous and amiable men and women is unlike anything else. Firefighters are good people; they are willing to help anyone at any time. They put their lives on the line.”

Cracknell says SkillsUSA has helped her gain the confidence to achieve what she puts her mind to — and to recognize just how good her instructors were at Lamar Institute of Technology.

Curtis adds, “SkillsUSA has exposed me to a world of opportunities. I was able to grow as a firefighter, as a leader and as a person. … SkillsUSA also improved my skills as an applicant. I learned how to do well in an interview, how to act around professionals and how to do all of these things in a sophisticated manner.”