Where There’s Smoke, There’s a SHEro

By Elliott Potter

When people drive up to Amy Procopio’s house in Holly Ridge, N.C., they might encounter not one but two emergency vehicles parked there. One is a police vehicle, while the other is a Ford 250 pickup truck tricked out for fire service.

Some people get confused. They assume the fire truck belongs to Amy’s husband, Mariano, so she must be part of the increasingly visible ranks of women police officers. But it’s Mariano who serves with the Holly Ridge Police Department, and she is a veteran firefighter and deputy chief of the municipal fire department in nearby Jacksonville.

Amy, 42, is still a bit surprised herself. She was on track for a career in nursing before she discovered her love for firefighting. “Fire service was never on my radar,” she says. “Never, ever.”

Amy grew up in Taylor, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and had started college-level nursing classes before she followed a Marine to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. While working for a travel agency as her day job, she began volunteering for a local rescue squad. Amy saw it as a way to apply some of her nursing education and a means to pursue training as an emergency medical technician.

She was in her early 20s at the time and living in Sneads Ferry, a quaint fishing village where the volunteer rescue squad and fire department were housed in the same building. While volunteering with the rescue unit, Amy went on a call to a structure fire with the firefighting folks next door. And her career path shifted.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Amy recalls. “It was exciting. It was fun. It was something I never thought I could do, but there I was doing it.”

She felt an excitement she was not feeling with nursing. Soon Amy found a new career opportunity at her doorstep, joining the Jacksonville Fire Department in February 2000. She literally began a steady climb up the ladder, racking up education degrees, training certifications and promotions over a solid 20 years of service. She has a bachelor’s degree in Fire and Emergency Services and now is working on a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on public administration.

Advancement in firefighting follows a defined structure, and so it did for Amy. After stints as a firefighter trainee, captain, platoon training officer and battalion chief, she now is deputy chief of operations, where she oversees personnel and equipment. For the past few months, she has focused on handling concerns related to COVID-19. She is also one of the department’s go-to officers in the critical area of accreditation.

Amy is one of nine women currently serving in Jacksonville Fire and Emergency Services, which employs 88 people. There were periods early on when she was the only woman, but those days are gone. Women moving up in the department still seek her out for help on building upper body strength, but she is not the only female officer they can call on. “We’re now starting to retain more people,” Amy says.

Her aspirations to be a nurse might have faded, but the early medical training has proven valuable. Jacksonville also dispatches firefighters on rescue calls, which can range from pregnancies and drug overdoses to shootings and stabbings. With their constant focus on quick response, fire service personnel might find themselves on scene 15 minutes before the arrival of an emergency medical services team. “We have to stabilize a patient and be ready for whatever might happen in the meantime,” Amy says.

Amy also in an integral part of the water rescue team. A member of that unit since 2005, she says it produced one of the more exciting episodes of her career.

Her team answered a plea to help some boaters who were hanging on for dear life in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which gave North Carolina an historic wallop in September 2018. Their watercraft had capsized while they were trying to remove logs from a river. “The current was still too strong,” Amy recalls. “Their small craft had capsized, and they were floating away with it.”

She was not in the water but was coordinating the rescue from the shore as incident commander.  After some scary moments, the water and rescue team pulled the boaters to safety.

Despite such occasional prime-for-TV moments, Amy says she doesn’t think of herself as a hero, even if gender distinguishes her. “At the same time, if I hadn’t stayed and kept getting promoted and chugging along, there maybe wouldn’t have been as many women here in our fire department. Because when you look around, there are some departments in the state that don’t have any females at all.”

Those departments are missing out, Amy says. With the heavy load of conditioning and training requirements, women have proven they can handle the physical aspects of the job, and their perspective and life experiences can prove valuable in dealing with people impacted at the scene of a fire or rescue call.

Her department-level boss, Mike Yaniero, Jacksonville’s director of public safety, is a believer. “A diverse organization connects with our community better,” he says.

The 24-7 nature of the job does bring up internal issues of privacy that people might expect. Bathroom doors without locks can produce surprises, Amy says. But considerations related to sharing sleeping and changing areas, and privacy in general, are important to both men and women.

Breastfeeding mothers have unique needs and presence, as Amy herself discovered. With more women joining the fire service, the Jacksonville department is now working on policy for breastfeeding.

Stereotypical chauvinism is fading with generational change, as are those legendary stories of angry spouses storming the firehouse, but even young people find they have to adjust to the unique arrangements and mindsets of professional firefighting.

In an era when the citizenry exhibits mixed feelings about some aspects of law enforcement and public service, firefighters are still held in high regard. For women like Amy—whose three children quietly brag on her, whose father’s worries could not eclipse his pride in her career, whose young neighbors see her as an inspiration—there is a sense of accomplishment. “We take a lot of pride in making your day better,” she says.

Elliott Potter is a staff columnist and blogger for HERStory. He is a former newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Jacksonville, N.C.

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