For 24-year-old, Winter Haven native Jessica Spell, being a Firefighter/ Paramedic is more than a job – it’s her whole life. Her reasons for joining and even her activities outside of work all center around the people she helps on a daily basis.
Aside from “mom-ing a lot” when she isn’t on shift at the fire station, Spell works at a hospital as a paramedic in the ER. She looks at her position in the hospital as a way to stay proficient in the medical aspect of her firefighting career.
Her five-year-old son was born and raised into firefighting. Spell said, “He thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. His mom is a firefighter. He knows what I do, he understands why I’m gone for as often as I’m gone for. What I’ve always told him is, ‘Mom is always coming back.’”
Her journey to join the fire service – to become a hero to her son and the community – began of all places, at the local Dunkin’ Donuts.
From Fast Food to Firefighting
Jessica Spell knew she wanted a career in the medical field. She knew she wanted to help others. “I was initially going to go to school for nursing. I felt confident in that decision, it was also a very safe decision for me.”
That decision changed when she found out she was pregnant during her first semester of college. “After my son was born, I had to make a decision as to where I wanted to take my career,” said Spell. She was trying to establish herself not only as an adult but now as a new parent. Nursing school was going to take between two and four years to complete and becoming a firefighter combined her love of helping people, physical activity and the medical field, and would take three semesters to get started.
She worked as a manager at Dunkin’ Donuts for about 4 years. Local firefighters were some of their regulars – stopping in for a morning coffee and some small talk. Another manager at her work was going to school to become a firefighter and would talk about the physical aspect of his training and the strenuous tasks they’d complete. “I was always athletic growing up. I always liked the challenge, I always liked to push myself,” said Jessica.
The career prospect appealed to Spell. “What better career possible than a place where I could help people, I could become a medical professional, and I could still have the athletic, physical component? That’s my life, that’s what I get paid for. I get paid to feel good for helping people, on the inside, and feel good on the outside for having to be in shape,” she said.
Prior to encountering the firefighters at Dunkin’ Donuts and her conversations with the other manager, she hadn’t had any exposure to the fire service. “Had I known more about it at a younger age, I probably would have spent my whole life gearing towards this, but I’m glad it came into play when it did,” she said.
Spell eventually got in contact with Lieutenant Mike Waters. She told him she was going to go to school to become a firefighter and asked if she could take a ride on their truck.
He told her to come to the station, fill out some paperwork and she could become an Explorer. She did and was an Explorer for about a year prior to starting her Fire Standards while going to school for EMT.
She attended Polk State College for her EMR (Emergency Medical Responder) and then her EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). She attended Ridge Fire Academy to complete her Fire Standards. She was already volunteering at Davenport Fire Department and her volunteer position became a paid position upon completing her standards.
She began paramedic school, which she described as one of the most difficult years of her life, during the 14 months she worked at DFD. She left DFD to work for Winter Haven Fire Department in January of 2017, the same month she began her second semester of paramedic school.
During her time as an Explorer and throughout EMT school, Spell spent a lot of time with the firefighters on B shift at WHFD where she would do ride time hours on Engine 541. She said, “They became like family right off the jump. The moment that I walked into the station, how they treated me, how they made me feel, how they took the time to show me ‘hey, this is what we do,’ they made me a part of it from day one and that had me sold on Winter Haven Fire Department.”
She made the decision not to apply to any other department – WHFD is where she wants to be.
Female in the Fire Service
Raised in a household by a single father with a military background and a younger brother, Spell said, “I had a very unique perspective on what it meant to live with guys for 24 hours at a time.”
Her concern going into the service wasn’t for herself, but more so being aware of how different it was going to be for the men. “When you have a group of guys and they band together as the brotherhood, that’s very real to them,” she said.
Adding a female into the mix, Spell said it can be funny to see the changes they make. “They sit differently, and they talk a little differently because they have respect for me. I felt as a female coming into a predominantly male department – they were respecting me so I was going to respect them.”
She has always felt that mutual understanding and respect amongst her brothers saying that it was easy fitting into this male-dominated field.
As for the physical aspect of being a female firefighter, Spell said, “I wish anyone – boy, girl, I don’t care who you are – would realize you are capable of whatever you set your mind to. Your brain is the strongest muscle in your body is how I like to put it.”
Fire Standards were life-changing for Spell. She had confidence that she could do it but admitted there were challenges throughout her training. She described the first time she lifted someone, hoisted the ladder, or had to drag someone as breaking through a barrier in her own mind. Realizing she could do it, she said, “Once you realize that, the sky’s the limit.”
Dragging or lifting someone three times her size is simply a matter of body mechanics and figuring out what works for you in the safest manner possible said Spell. “Some of these guys can go out here and bench press 200 pounds. I’m never going to be that, so I had to figure out my strengths and I had to face my weaknesses very head-on. I have to be aware of what I’m capable of, just as much as I have to be aware of what I max out at.”
Beyond the Title
Firefighting may be in their name, but it isn’t remotely close to the only thing they do on any given shift. “I think there’s just a lack of a thorough knowledge of what it is that we do exactly,” posited Spell.
She estimates that between 80-85% of the calls they run are medical. Yes, firefighting is a critical part of the job she says, but so too are car accidents, cardiac arrest, strokes, and any variety of other emergencies.
She discussed the motor accident portion of what they do, saying, “We have to be knowledgeable of each vehicle that’s out there on the road. You’ve got electric, you’ve got propane [...] and you have to know how to cut that car open, how to do it safely as to not further injure the person that’s in it or the people that you’re working with around you.”
With medical being the broadest category of the calls they receive, Jessica said, “In one year, paramedics get a crash course in what it is to be a doctor and what it is to be a doctor in the most critical circumstances.” She added, “In that moment we have to know exactly what it is that we need to do to be able to help you and save you.”
“I think that it’s developing, it’s new. The fire service used to be simply firefighters, but we are so much more than that now. I don’t think the general population is aware of just how diverse we have to be and how on top of things at any given moment we have to be at all times.”
Firefighter and Foster Mom
Spell estimated it to be on Halloween day when they got the call around 4:30 in the evening for a “non-responsive.” Arriving on the scene, they discovered a baby girl had ingested methadone, a substance that has the same effects as narcotics according to Spell.
“Her heart was still beating but she was no longer breathing. We arrived on scene, got baseline vitals on her. The ambulance showed up, intubated, and then in the back of the ambulance when I went to hear her breath sounds, I heard her heart stop beating.”
They began compressions on the little girl and transported her to Winter Haven Hospital where she was immediately transported to St. Joseph’s. There, her stomach was pumped, and they got pulses back.
“Four days later,” Spell said, “I was babysitting her.”
The baby, as it turned out, was the niece of one of Jessica’s personal friends. “She had called me and was really upset because her niece had just gotten transported away in an ambulance and I couldn’t tell her that I was one of the people in the ambulance with her,” said Spell.
Due to the proximity from the aunt’s house to where the incident occurred, the aunt wasn’t able to maintain custody. “I said from day one – give me that baby,” said the firefighter.
Spell had custody of her from January of 2018 to February of 2019. “I got to celebrate her first birthday with her, watch her take her first steps,” she said.
“If it were not for her aunt and the support of WHFD union [...] I don’t know how I would have made raising two children possible,” noted Spell. Each member of the WHFD union donated $50 Publix gift cards to help her afford groceries and necessities for the baby.
Her foster parenthood ended happily when the child was placed with a blood relative in Georgia. Not only did Spell aid in saving the little girl’s life, but she also played her part in giving her a happy one until she could return to her family.
Be the Light
The level of calamity, physical, and emotional trauma firefighters see every day can’t be understated. They aren’t only putting their lives on the line to save others, but potentially their own mental health. Spell explained how she copes with the difficult situations she encounters in the line of duty. “You can harbor things in whatever way works for you, but what works for me is that no matter the outcome, no matter what I’ve seen or the circumstances – I am helping someone to the absolute best of my ability.”
“That’s why the training is important, that’s why I make sure I’m running outside of work and working out on shift and reading the protocols is because I can say every day that I show up to whatever your emergency is, that I have given it the absolute best of my ability,” she said. “I have not yet walked away with anything that has traumatized me, at least that I’m aware of, because of that – because I’m doing the best that I can.”
The fervent dedication Spell expresses and displays for her work can be described as nothing other than heroic. This isn’t just a position she fills, a paycheck to be drawn – this is what Jessica Spell was meant to do. “You’re never going to get rich here at least not monetarily,” she said, “but you can definitely fill your heart up a little bit.”
A firefighter’s relationship with the victims they interact with is a paramount part of what they do. Spell said the people they face are often having one of the worst days of their life.
“You take the time to talk to them. You take the time to be the light in a really dark situation because that one moment, those five minutes, that can make a world of difference to them,” she said. “Because even in the middle of all this bad stuff that’s happening, there is still good. You have to look and you have to be that for other people sometimes. […] If you’ve ever been in a situation where you couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and you couldn’t see the stars shining behind all the clouds – they’re there. Help other people find that. That’s what we do, that’s what we’re supposed to do. That is probably first and foremost the number one responsibility of this job – regardless of the title.”
She admits she can’t speak for everyone in the fire service – there are others who have had different experiences than her, but she tries to face her own experiences head-on. “Is there a likelihood that this job will harden you? Most certainly. How do you see all of this bad stuff day in and day out and continue to move forward with a positive outlook? It’s hard, it’s a challenge, but you have to step up and face it because it will get you if you let it.”
Here to Help
Spell considers herself relatively new in the fire service with next January marking three years with WHFD. One day though, she would like to progress. Until then, she plans to continue her education for both medical and fire.
She hopes to climb the ranks of the fire service in the future, not for the sake of saying that she is an engineer, a lieutenant, or chief, but, “As I progress and hopefully continue to be the best that I possibly can be, I want to be able to share my experiences with those who are just starting out and the best way to do so is to promote. To show these people who started out in the same position that I was in, ‘Hey, I know you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing, but you’re going to figure it out and I’m going to be here to help you.’”