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At just 20 years of age, Lakelyn Zeigler has the distinction of being the youngest member of the Bristol Tennessee Fire Department. Of course, there’s something else that sets her apart, too.
She – along with Brittney Threlkeld, Lacey Camarillo, Sara Stoll, and part-timer Cassie Harmon – is part of the largest contingent of female firefighters in the history of the Bristol Tennessee Fire Department. They each came to the department independently, drawn for different reasons and bringing various levels of experience with them. Once on board, they quickly formed bonds with each other and the other 60+ members of the department they serve.
Lakelyn was introduced to the world of emergency services at a young age, thanks to various family members who held jobs within fire and police departments during her childhood. She joined a volunteer rescue squad and became a volunteer firefighter while still in high school, then headed off to Penn State on a softball scholarship to pursue a degree in nursing. Her ultimate goal was to become a flight nurse.
“I was there for a year and then decided that’s not what I wanted to do anymore,” she said. “I decided to go a different route and be a flight paramedic.”
So Lakelyn came back to Bristol with new career and educational aspirations. Before she began applying for jobs, she earned certification as an Emergency Medical Technician through the Southwest Virginia EMS Council and then enrolled in the Northeast Tennessee Regional Fire Training Academy, a rigorous 10-week program often referred to as “rookie school.” Her training complete, she applied for a position with the Bristol Tennessee Fire Department and was hired in September 2021.
A native of California, Brittney said public service was in her blood, too. Both parents were in the military, her father later became a police officer, and she “grew up around a lot of cops.” She came to Bristol with plans of starting a service dog training program, but those plans fell through before the business got off the ground. Then, in 2015, when her house was heavily damaged by fire, Brittney became intrigued by the firefighting profession. She became a volunteer for the nearby Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department to gain some experience, but said her ultimate goal was to land a job with the Bristol Tennessee Fire Department. She tried for three years and was hired in June 2020.
Since then, she has completed the EMT Training Program and the Advanced EMT Training Program offered through the department, proudly noting that she is “Bristol trained.” She began rookie school on Valentine’s Day.
Lacey began her career in emergency medical services as a ground medic in the U.S. Army. Her grandfather is a veteran of World War II, her father is a Vietnam veteran, and an array of uncles on both sides of her family also served. The Army seemed a natural career choice for her, she said, noting that she has been deployed three times to Afghanistan and recently celebrated her 14th anniversary in the military – currently as a member of the National Guard.
“I grew up hearing about it and seeing old pictures and became really interested in serving the greatest country in the world,” she said.
Once she left active duty status and entered the civilian workforce, she used her GI bill to gain the additional training needed to become a licensed paramedic. Still in her home state of California, she worked for a busy EMS system in Fresno, then followed her boyfriend to Bristol in 2020. After a stint as a hospital paramedic, she was anxious to return to ambulance work. She joined the Bristol Tennessee Fire Department last December and is currently attending rookie school to gain firefighter training.
After earning a degree in psychology from the University of Vermont, Sara began working with psychiatric patients in a hospital emergency room. While watching ambulances come and go, she “became fascinated” with emergency medical services. To learn more, she began volunteering for a rescue squad, then earned certification as an EMT.
She decided to stay on that career path when she and her two young sons moved to the area recently. She is now at rookie school to learn the firefighting skills required of her new job and credits her mother for encouraging her to enter a male-dominated profession.
“My mother is a sergeant major, an E9, in the Vermont National Guard, so she is extremely high ranking,” she said. “I’m very, very proud of her, so I can hope that I live up to her standards. … And as for my kids, they absolutely love it. When I first said that I was applying here, my little one was like ‘do you get to drive the firetrucks?’ He was so excited. So I’ve had a ton of family support. They’re really happy for me and encouraged me every single day.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up only about 4 percent of all firefighters nationwide. The female members of the BTFD said they are not surprised by that statistic, but agreed their minority status isn’t a big deal within the local department. Not only have their family and friends been supportive of their career choice, everyone within the department has welcomed each of them with open arms.
“On the first day you get here, it’s like, instantly you feel welcomed,” Lakelyn said. “They make sure that everybody’s treating you right and getting you settled in and making sure you have everything that you need. … Everybody’s been welcoming. It’s like a brother-sister relationship.”
Brittney agreed, noting that the other firefighters have helped her review material for the EMT courses she has completed since joining the department and then helped her polish the skills she’ll need to successfully complete rookie school.
“So a lot of my guys, especially on my shift when we are working, we’re setting up different drills for working on stuff that I will come across in rookie school,” she said. “As far as throwing ladders, working on knots, ropes, anything that I feel I need a hand up with, they’re out there to help me, coach me, and get me ready.”
Fire Chief Mike Carrier said this is not the first time the department has employed females, but added that the four full-time members and one part-time member make up the largest group of females employed at any one time. Gender is not a consideration in the hiring process, because applicants are ranked based on training, experience, and the scores they receive on written tests and departmental interviews. Once on board, every member works together to create the family atmosphere that allows them all - individually and as a group - to deliver exceptional service.
“They’re able to hold their own with our male firefighters in the fire suppression side of things, and they do great in the EMS field,” Chief Carrier said. “So we’re glad to have them. And I anticipate that, when you look at the makeup of departments nationwide, you’re seeing a lot more females in the fire and EMS field than you did even 10 years ago, and I think we’ll see a lot more going forward.”
Part-time Firefighter/Paramedic Cassie Harmon was not available to be interviewed for this article.