Born on Florida’s east coast, Jessica Bryant went to Florida Institute of Technology and earned her Bachelor of Science degree. From there she built a career managing restaurants and was the General Manager for years at a corporate restaurant. As she grew increasingly disheartened with the industry, Bryant wanted a change.
A friend from roller derby, a firefighter/ paramedic for Hillsborough County, asked Bryant if she’d ever thought of being in the fire service – she hadn’t. She thought teaching was her next calling until an EMR course piqued her interest.
Building momentum from that class, Bryant took an EMT course and loved it. Next, she pursued her fire standards. At 34 years old, Jessica Bryant decided to become a firefighter and Lakeland Fire Department was her first choice. She’s been doing a job that challenges and fulfills her for two and a half years now. Bryant even joined a combat fire team, Team Lang to compete in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge.
Bryant has always wanted to be the best firefighter she could be. Her mentality is that at work, she is a firefighter above all else. “No matter woman or man, as a new firefighter you have to prove to your crew that you have their back no matter what, which can be stressful, and as a woman, you may have to figure different techniques to get the job done. But once you do and show that you never give up, this is the best career in the world, and the rewards outweigh any bad day,” she said.
Donning earrings and glitter nail polish, Bryant made it clear that her femininity has not been sacrificed for her career. “You don’t have to lose being a woman to be a firefighter,” she said.
Bryant’s experience in the fire service has been a positive one. “Our department wants you to do a good job and they want you to be happy while you’re doing it,” she said. Of her male comrades, Bryant said, “It’s like having a bunch of big brothers.”
Women within the fire service can empower each other through passing on knowledge and being collective says Bryant. “I think if we work together as women, we’re going to get a lot more done,” she said.
She shared advice given to her by retired career Lakeland firefighter Maggie Colson, “Demand what is yours, fight for what is yours, but be ready to back it up.”
Igniting Change: Women in the Fire Service
In efforts to diversify the department, LFD began a campaign called “Igniting Change.” The program is to encourage more girls and women to consider the fire service as a career option. The fire department speaks at schools and groups like PACE Center for Girls and Girls Inc. to share this message. A video was produced by the department detailing the perspective of a female firefighter, encouraging other women who are interested in the fire service. The department also provides Polk County high schools with materials from bookmarks and videos to career planning materials for guidance counselors to give to students.
Fire Chief Riley expressed that the fire department should be a reflection of the community they serve. The department would like to make it an attractive career option for people who might not have considered it as such.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nationwide, only about 4% of firefighters are female. That number is unacceptable to the Fire Chief. “Young girls never think about becoming firefighters. Why? Because nobody ever has that conversation with them,” he said.
He thinks middle school or younger is where the seed needs to be planted that firefighting is a viable, realistic career choice for women as well as men. Jessica Bryant is involved with the Igniting Change campaign, and speaks to young girls. “I went through school and went to college and no one said ‘Have you ever thought about being a firefighter?’” She thinks it’s extremely positive to spread their message to girls. “Women in the fire service can be a great help when dealing with female patients. Female firefighters help to just add another perspective or view in serving our communities,” she added.
Public Relations and Information Manager for LFD, Janel Vasallo spoke about the impact the campaign has had, saying, “Before the campaign, we went some years without getting any applications from women. After the campaign came out, we got a lot of local news attention [...] The following hiring period, we got eight applications.”
Bryant brings another interesting perspective to being a female in the fire service. At the time of our interview in September, Bryant was 34 weeks pregnant and still actively working. Her daughter, Ali Fortunato Bryant Gittings will be Bryant’s first child. With a due date of October 20, the expecting mother shared what it was like having the normal thoughts and worries of pregnancy combined with her dangerous line of work.
She went through the usual considerations of how she would get time off and finding a babysitter to things she’s never thought about before like preparing a will. Taking off much of the stress, her fellow firefighters have been supportive of Bryant, even offering to cover her shift when she needs time off. “The department has been very helpful,” she said. They’ve given Bryant the option to come off-line and work in administration whenever she feels she needs to. When we spoke, she planned to continue working as normal until around 37 weeks.
Her family of firefighters has embraced Bryant and her baby girl. They even threw her a baby shower and Bryant remarked she constantly receives baby clothes and gifts for Ali.
Asked what lessons she has learned as a firefighter that will carry over into motherhood, Bryant laughed, saying she has bought safety kits for the whole house. “I’ve become a little neurotic on safety, that’s for sure.”
Bryant reflected on what it was like to be in her 30’s, mid-career, and change everything despite what others would think. She hopes Ali will have that drive to do what makes her happy, to be educated, strong, and voice her opinion. Bryant said, “I want her to know that the possibilities are endless. Whatever she wants to do, she can do it. As long as she has a commitment and a drive – she’ll have the support there.”