As a child, Lacy New never missed an episode of “Rescue 911,” a TV series that ran from 1989 until 1996 hosted by William Shatner. Those rescue re-enactments mixed with real-life emergency calls stuck with Lacy through high school.
“The first time I stepped foot into the fire station, I was hooked,” said Lacy, now 38, reflecting back more than 20 years. “I knew I always wanted to be in the medical field, but becoming a firefighter was something I actually never thought I would do.”
Lacy has been with York County Fire and Life Safety for 17 of the 21 years she has been a firefighter. The responsibilities of motherhood at age 16 also motivated her to find a career that was stable and fulfilling, she added.
“Becoming a mother at such a young age was hard. It was really hard,” said Lacy, now the mother of four, ages 10 to 24. “My son, Tyler, was my motivation to begin my career path in fire service.”
As a female first responder, Lacy is a member of a sorority of dedicated women who serve their communities as firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and police officers. They know the dangers of the jobs they do, always aware that anything can happen on the scene of a fire, a vehicle wreck, or a crime.
“I think what scares me scares everyone—getting hurt or dying,” said Lacy, who lives in Chesapeake. “But that’s a risk myself and everyone in this career is willing to take to save a human life.”
Here, we meet several additional female first responders, each dedicated in personal and professional ways to the differences they are making in the safety and wellness of all Hampton Roads residents.
Women Are Making a Difference
In the Virginia Beach Police Department
In 2008, Cynthia Santiago looked for a career change after 10 years of corporate finance and accounting work. In early 2010, she joined the Virginia Beach Police Department.
“As a minority woman, I wanted to make it known that this line of work is inclusive and available to people from different backgrounds,” said Cynthia, 45, who became the department’s first Latina sergeant in 2019. “I became a police officer to be able to make a difference.”
In 2018, she helped make a difference as a founding member of the Hispanic Citizens Police Academy, which is an educational outreach effort to the city’s 40,000 Hispanic citizens. Classes taught in Spanish focus on helping the residents understand what the police department does.
“The academy has been incredibly successful since its launch, and I’m proud so many people want to learn,” she said.
Cynthia’s 13 years of law enforcement work have included the patrol and domestic violence units. Now, as the newly appointed domestic violence sergeant, she supervises and works mostly in the office, making sure detectives overlook nothing during their investigations of the city’s domestic violence, child abuse, and missing persons cases.
As a police officer, Cynthia said she has worked through some scary scenarios, as well as professional challenges, but she stays strong and emerges stronger.
“I had to deal with a gentleman who recently broke up with his girlfriend and was threatening suicide,” she recalled. “Having to set up a team to go and deal with him while he was shooting rounds at the ground had to be one of the scarier moments on the job.”
“As a woman in the field, I have had to go above and beyond to prove myself and to be taken seriously,” she continued. “You need to prove yourself to citizens who do not comply with your requests—not only because you are a police officer but also because you are a woman. That is something I find myself constantly battling on a regular basis.”
Within the department’s 706 police officers, Cynthia works alongside 120 female officers—and additional women officers are promised, according to a department spokesperson.
“The Virginia Beach Police Department is committed to having 30 percent of our sworn staff be women by 2030,” said Jody Saunders, chief communications officer.
“It’s a rewarding career,” Cynthia said. “Yes, it is difficult, but it’s completely worth it.”
Volunteering for Virginia Beach Rescue Squads
Is a Gateway to a Career in Health Care
Three years ago, Laura Grabarczyk worried about fainting at the sight of blood, and Izzy Waldrop fretted about passing the certification test.
They quickly conquered those fears and moved on to serve as emergency medical technicians with the Princess Anne Courthouse Volunteer Rescue Squad, founded in 1947 in Virginia Beach. In their duty rotations, they administer IVs, do chest compressions, calmly handle panic attacks, and apply bandages.
“Knowing you are there to help someone in their worse moments is what keeps you going,” said Izzy, 21, a squad supply lieutenant who makes sure the ambulances are stocked. “The best moment on my job has honestly just been all the friends I’ve made in the emergency medical system that have as much passion for this job as I do.”
Laura, 22, joined the same squad in 2019, knowing that the hands-on patient care would help confirm her commitment to medical school. She’s completed advanced paramedic school and is a pre-med student at the University of Virginia.
“The emergency medical system is a great way to see health care, and I learned so much from the pandemic as a brand new EMT,” Laura said. “I was running 12-hour shifts 14 times a month and just loving the experience I was having and all I was learning.
“There are certain call types, such as chest pains or falls, that are more common than others, but every call and every patient is different. It’s never boring and the adrenaline rush of never fully knowing what you are walking into makes it exciting,” Laura continued. “If you’re compassionate, good at talking to people, and think quickly on your feet, I think you’d do great. Once you prove that you’re knowledgeable, I’ve always found that you get the respect that you deserve.”
More than 1,000 volunteers make up the 10 squads in VB Rescue, which is one of the largest volunteer rescue operations nationwide. Each squad relies on community funding and operates independently under the umbrella of the Virginia Beach Rescue Squad Foundation, founded in 1982.
Firefighters Work as a Team
in Chesapeake and Yorktown
Female firefighters face the same physical challenges the men do, and they have no reservations about doing it. When Lacy and Chesapeake Fire Captain Gillian Ahern (pictured on p. 3) went through the hiring process, they had to pass a physical agility test—carry 75 pounds on a stair climber and then 50 pounds during the rest of the test—hose drag and pull, ladder raise, 165-pound victim drag, and confined space crawl, all in 10 minutes and 20 seconds.
“I have seen 200-pound men fail and 135-pound females pass this test,” said Gillian, who has been with the Chesapeake Fire Department for 12 years. She is now a trainer who helps administer the test to the department’s 454 paid firefighters, 46 of whom are women. “You must be ready physically to do this job.”
To stay fit physically and mentally, firefighters work out and train constantly.
“Most people hear us say that we have two families—our family at home and our fire department family,” said Gillian, 38, married and the mother of two daughters, ages 2 and 14, and a son, 15. “That’s true. We eat meals, train, work out, and respond to calls together during our 24-hour shifts. Going through the fire academy, we all learned quickly that we get things done better and more efficiently if we work together instead of individually.”
“I see it as a camaraderie among both male and female firefighters,” she continued, “and I have a solid group of female firefighters that get together and hang out outside of work as well.”
In York County, Lacy is one of 10 female firefighters in a department of 145 employees who are cross trained to fight fires and provide emergency medical services.
“I have had to prove myself but so has every new firefighter,” said Lacy, who pulls ten 24-hour shifts monthly. At home, she works for her husband, who owns a sign business.
“I went through the fire academy, but the guys on the street are who really teach you how to become a good fireman,” Lacy continued. “Were they hard on me? Sure. Mean to me? Sure. But they taught me respect and taught me this is the best career in the world—and it is also dangerous. They taught me that just because I am a female doesn’t mean I can’t do what the men do. For that, I am forever grateful.”