Many Costa Ricans remember the disaster of the Hospital Calderón Guardia fire July 12, 2005, that resulted in 19 deaths and patients climbing through smashed windows and standing on the ledges in order to be rescued.
Firefighter Carolina Fernández Durán was just three years on the job, but says it is a day that she still carries with her seven years later.
“It was very significant to me,” she said. “I saw the persons burned, and I still remember them in my head.”
The early morning fire proved to be very difficult for Ms. Fernández and her coworkers.
“The fire was very complicated because there were a lot of people and a lot of patients that needed help,” she said. “It was a very big fire, and many people died. It was very bad.”
That day, Ms. Fernández was not just carrying the weight of a life saving professional but also one of being the first woman in Costa Rica to do the job.
In a machismo society such as Costa Rica, it can be difficult for women to assimilate into the workforce, especially in jobs traditionally reserved for men.
Ms. Fernández broke into the male-only fire force in 2002, shattering the stereotype that it was a man’s job. Before she was working as a volunteer for the Cruz Roja.
After nine years of service with the humanitarian organization, firefighter acquaintances helped her get the necessary documents to start her new career choice journey, she said.
“It’s the best job in the world, and I am very thankful to be able to help people,” said Ms. Fernández. “The people respond with so much thanks and are very appreciative.”
Being the first female in the country to be a firefighter did not come without challenges. Firefighters not only put their lives in jeopardy to save others, but it also is a job that requires a lot of heavy lifting.
“The job requires a lot of physical force and is very competitive,” she said. “It’s hard to be better than the others.”
According to Ms. Fernández, she received a lot of negativity from men who said she couldn’t do the job. She didn’t let it bother her, but continued to climb up the ladder to success proving her capabilities along the way.
In March she was appointed a lieutenant of the Tibás fire station. In her new position of authority. she has another obstacle to overcome, males who do not like to take orders from women. This is something she has learned to accept, she said.
“I don’t say anything to them,” she said. “I only work with them, and soon they don’t want to leave for another station.”
After her firefighting shift, Ms. Fernández returns home for her second job as a wife and mother of two children.
“I have double the work, work in the house and in the force,” she said.
Luckily, she said, she gets a lot of help from her husband who also is a firefighter but at the San José station. The two met at the Heredia fire station.
Knowing the details of the job, Ms. Fernández said her husband is very nervous about her working as a firefighter but offers her a lot of support.
However, Ms. Fernández does not forget recreational activities. She and a group of other firefighters enjoy the beauty of the underwater scene by going out diving in their free time.
Over the last decade, the fire brigade in Costa Rica has grown to include 12 women. This is important, because women have the same desire to help and the addition of women firefighters shows the development of the organization, said Ms. Fernández.
In regards to women wanting to join the organization, she gives this advice, “If you want to do it, you can do it.”
“It’s very hard and very tiring, but beautiful work,” she said.