First on the scene

Female first responders attract attention in a male-dominated field.


Local female firefighters/paramedics say gender doesn’t matter. They prove with commitment and dedication that women can drive big tankers and ladder trucks, fight fires, rescue cats out of trees, and remain calm on emergency calls. 

Lt. Denys Neff, Valerie Ligi, Heather Churchwell, Lt. Tara Holcomb, Dara Hennessey, and Nia Hannon are among the elite few. Out of more than 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, only 7 percent are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. 

“Whether we are on a simple medical call or a fire, I think women have a tendency to have a calming effect when it comes to people; we’re approachable,” says Denys (pronounced “Denise”) Neff, who was hired in October 2000 as the first female firefighter at Leesburg Fire Department. She was pleased to be welcomed by her male peers. 

Denys Neff. Photo: Fred Lopez

“It was easier for them to accept me because they were already familiar with me since I worked for Leesburg Police Department first,” says Denys, who began working there in 1990. After developing a good rapport with the firefighters and encouraged to make the switch, she found her light-hearted, easy-going personality was a better fit with the fire crew. 

Trained at Lake Technical Center’s Institute of Public Safety, she valued the continuous training she experienced at both Leesburg police and fire departments, yet she noticed the public reacts differently to firefighters than to police. 

“People love when a firefighter or an ambulance comes up, and they’ll hug you and they are happy as anything to see me. They were not happy to see me in law enforcement,” Denys says. 

She enjoys driving various apparatus, including the 95-foot ladder truck housed at Fire Station 63 at the airport. 

“When you’re behind a big ol’ firetruck, a ladder, or tower, you can tell people are just surprised that a woman is driving,” she says. “I really love coming to work. I love that every day is different. No call is the same.” 

Calls come in for smoke detector checks, car accidents, and large house fires. There also have been a few odd requests. 

“Why would you call the fire department if you can’t reach your television remote after it fell on the floor?” she says, adding another crew responded to that one. “But, we are public servants, and if that is what you need, we will do it.” 

And while television shows have depicted firefighters rescuing frightened cats from trees, Denys says those kinds of calls also happen in real life. 

“I’ve done the cat thing,” she says of rescuing three, yet she believes the felines eventually would have come down on their own. 


Cat Tails

Lake County firefighter and paramedic Valerie Ligi has her own cat rescue story. 

“We got a call about a cat in distress,” she says. It turned out to be a non-emergency call of a kitten stuck in the hole of a plastic fence post down in the ground. 

Valerie Ligi. Photo: Fred Lopez

“We were trying to figure out how to get the cat out, and the cat was screaming. We disabled the fence, and then we got an emergency call in the middle of the rescue,” Valerie says, recalling everything was put on hold to respond to the emergency before returning to help the little feline. 

“I have the cat now,” Valerie says. She named the cat Pickles—for getting into a pickle of a situation. After she took Pickles to the veterinarian, she learned from his office that there was a children’s book, “The Fire Cat,” about a cat with the same name, published in the 1960s. She bought the book. 

 “It is really a funny coincidence of me naming her Pickles, and then there is a children’s book about Pickles, the fire cat,” she says. 

Valerie has been a firefighter for a little more than eight years. She works at Lake County Fire Rescue Station 53 in Fruitland Park, and while growing up in New York, she remembers the New York City Fire Department was a big deal, even before firefighters’ heroics after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Before becoming a firefighter, she served a little more than four years in the U.S. Air Force, deployed in Kuwait and England, and while working as a personal trainer at an Orlando gym, she met firefighters who encouraged her to go into fire service. She went for training at Central Florida Fire Academy in 2009, followed by paramedic school.

“Being a personal trainer did help. Physically, I was probably in the best shape of my life when I got into fire service, because I was lifting weights all the time,” Valerie says, noting women have more muscle in their legs and that’s what got her through physical agility tests.

“I love this job. I really, really love coming into work and not having a clue what the day is going to bring. Every day is a new day. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but the reward is helping people,” Valerie says. “I never knew I would love the medical side of it as much as I do; I love being there in people’s time of need.”

Two years ago, she decided to go to nursing school in Orlando, and since she already had a bachelor’s degree, she was able to transfer those credits to her paramedic training hours. She needed only one year of nursing courses to become a registered nurse.

“I think my nursing education helped me to become a more compassionate paramedic,” she says. “I can see the bigger picture of the patient and not just what I am doing right now at this immediate moment, but more of what the patient will endure later on in the hospital. It has helped me to be more compassionate to the family members as well.” 

Her next goal is to concentrate on taking fire officer’s classes, all with a goal of getting promoted to lieutenant or possibly chief one day. 

“My mom is a super-proud mom,” Valerie says. “She lives in New York and she runs up to firefighters there to tell them, ‘My daughter is a firefighter in Florida!’ It’s funny.” 


Family affair

Mount Dora Fire Department has four female firefighters/paramedics: Heather Churchwell, Lt. Tara Holcomb, Dara Hennessey, and Nia Hannon. They are among the city’s fire crew that responds to 4,000 calls a year, along with assisting Eustis, Tavares, and Lake County as the closest unit. 

“My dad was a volunteer fire chief when I was growing up,” says Heather, who remembers going to brush fires with him. In 1996, she took a volunteer course, fell in love with it, and began with a volunteer department in Sebring. 

She also worked for Emergency Medical Services in Lake County, went to paramedic school in Orlando, and has been with Mount Dora Fire Department for 11½ years. “We are there for people’s worst days,” she says. 

Heather Churchwell. Photo: Fred Lopez

“I think people are a little more accepting today (of female firefighters) than back in 1996 when I started. I had more problems, not with the guys, but with the wives,” Heather recalls of her colleagues’ spouses.  “There was a little bit of jealousy.” 

She says MDFD is a “wonderful” working environment.

“I worked for a department, and I’m not going to say the name, but I had to prove myself literally every day that I could drive the big tanker, drive the big tower, do the extra,” she says. “And after 2½ years, I chose to find other employment, and it was OK because it was a great experience and it also taught me to be stronger.” 

Tara grew up in a firefighting family. Her father was a firefighter for 30 years in Orlando, and her uncle was one in Seminole County.  

Being a firefighter was not her initial career plan. After completing college in religious studies, she thought she’d work at a fire department for a few years before going to grad school. “Then I went to fire school at Lake Tech and loved it,” she recalls, which was followed by emergency medical technician school in Orlando. While doing her EMT clinicals in Mount Dora, “I was riding 24-hour shifts with the guys and just ended up finding my place here.” 

She says it’s vital to be calm on calls. “You may be going to an emergency, but it is not your emergency. If you get caught up in it, you become part of that rather than part of the solution,” she says. 

Photo: Fred Lopez

Tara was involved in rescuing four stressed cats, including two trapped in a structure fire, and all four felines now live with her. 

Nia dealt with stressful moments working in three hospital emergency rooms in Orlando, South Seminole, and Florida Hospital Waterman for 15 years, 12 of those as a paramedic, before she chose to make a career change in 2016 and become trained as a firefighter. 

“I was never really in tune with the ER job, but I feel like I am in tune with this job,” says Nia, who is now focused on heading a health and safety committee for the department. She wants to generate awareness to fix cardiac and cancer woes that have been common for many firefighters in retirement. Most retire after 25 years.

“To not live more than two to five years after that sucks, and I don’t think anybody deserves that. We work too hard not to enjoy retirement,” she says, encouraging new firefighters and those going the fire academy to be disciplined in thinking about their future. 

She also believes it’s important to be disciplined about exercise and doing activities that are good for overall health. She found practical workout equipment that’s specific for firefighters.

“I want a long, healthy retirement, and there’s kind of a selfish component,” she says. “I don’t want to hear somebody I know died; I don’t want to go to their funeral because they died too early.” 

Dara is very education-minded, too. She has been a firefighter for nearly 16 years, and she joined MDFD in January. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Seminole State College, teaching standards (basic firefighting), and she instructs in technical rescue at Lake Technical College. She’s the only female instructor in the public safety courses. 

“At the beginning of my career, I got put on a truck company for an aerial apparatus and found I have a passion for that, and I made it kind of a goal of mine to be perfect in the craft and do what I can to share it with other people,” Dara says. 

“When people come in, especially in the technical rescue realm, they are expecting a bunch of men. I think they are taken back by seeing a female teach them new skills, but once they understand that you do know what you’re talking about and have been around the block a little bit, you earn their respect. I let my actions speak over words and certificates,” she says.

To become certified by the state, prospective female firefighters—just like men—must pass several written tests as well as skills tests in full, hot gear (typically an extra 50 pounds) designed to keep heat out.

Dara finds most students are surprised by the physical ability it takes to do the job.

“Someone may think they are in decent shape because they go to the gym or run a lot, but it’s a different cardiovascular and muscular demand on the body that you can’t replicate. You can try, but it is not the same as actually going through the motions with the gear and the equipment,” she says, adding it’s also important to learn not to get caught up in the drama of the emergency.

“As far as structure fires and things like that, the more amped up you are, the more chaotic the scene will be, so it’s almost like a self-discipline that you have to be calm, cool, and collected,” she says. 

Dara also is affiliated with East Coast Tactics, where she and other firefighters travel for training conferences.

“A lot of stuff we do is our own time and money because we try to focus on the departments that may not have the funds to train,” she says. “We believe the worst type of knowledge is the knowledge unshared.” 

She notes the highlight of her career has been training, teaching, and mentoring. 

“When you have great leadership like we do here, it trickles down to the field to the people that we serve in the community,” Dara says. “It’s all about customer service. If you come to work and you’re a happy employee and do your job and you run these calls—it could be the same person over and over again—but you treat this person with the respect that they deserve. We are by trade and tradition public servants, and they expect nothing less than excellence. And when you give that to them and meet and greet them with a smile, they are happy to see you every single time.”