BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Two decades of perseverance paid off Aug. 24, 2021, for Stephanie Orgueira-Aponte, 32, when she was hired as the first female Bloomfield Fire Department firefighter. A graduate of Nutley High School, Class of 2009, she moved to Bloomfield four years ago in the hopes of being hired.
“I fell in love with the fire service when I was about 13 or 14,” she recently told The Independent Press. “My brother was a volunteer in the Riverdale (NJ) Fire Department. I got a tour of the firehouse and went to wetdowns. That’s a baptism for new fire trucks.”
But coming from a traditional, religious family “sort of delayed” her from volunteering herself, she said, and expressing this interest was met with explanations that girls do not grow up to become firefighters.
So she sidelined her passion and did cheerleading instead; however, while attending Bergen Community College, she naturally came into contact with nontraditional views. Moving to Secaucus, where she met her future husband, Orgueira-Aponte became a Secaucus Fire Department volunteer at 22. It was in Secaucus where she also met her first fire.
“It was on the day of graduation at the fire academy,” she said. “I was dressed in my Class A uniform when I heard the tones on my pager.”
She said a pager alerts firefighters to a fire and its severity; there was only talk of smoke conditions. Consequently, Orgueira-Aponte thought it would be a quick knockdown, nothing much. But it turned out to be one of the biggest Secaucus residential fires in recent memory, she said.
“I skipped my graduation,” she continued. “My parents waited at the graduation. I was fighting the fire for five or six hours. I was the only one in my class who skipped graduation.”
While a volunteer, Orgueira-Aponte had heard that Bloomfield would be hiring eight firefighters and that the exam applications would soon be available.
“I spoke to my husband about moving,” she said. “Bloomfield was a tight-knit community where I would feel comfortable.”
So they moved to the township where residency would give Orgueira-Aponte “extra credit” when the township hired firefighters. She took the test and was on the waitlist for three years.
“When you take the test, they give you a grade and put you on a ranking list,” she said. “I was No. 36 and had to see if they would get to my number.”
She was also concerned that after the next test, her ranking could be lower. But the COVID-19 pandemic led to the test being canceled. After three years of hoping, Orgueira-Aponte received her letter of certification asking if she was still interested in the job. She was. Some people, she said, are surprised to learn that she is a firefighter and not a fire department secretary.
Orgueira-Aponte is currently stationed at Fire Station No. 2 on Watsessing Avenue, where, like the other firefighters, she works a 24-hour shift and is off for 72 hours. At No. 2, there are private quarters for the shift’s crew of captain, fire truck driver and firefighter.
“The guys were a little hesitant on how to act with a woman firefighter around,” she said. “I think the most comical part is the bathroom situation.”
BFD Chief Lou Venezia said the department was excited to welcome Orgueira-Aponte.
“Stephanie joins an extremely well trained, professional and progressive organization,” he said. “In welcoming the first female to the department, we had to ensure that our facilities and policies are being updated and that reasonable accommodations are being made. We also have been reviewing and revising our policy manual as part of the accreditation process.”
Venezia added that a second BFD female firefighter will be assigned next month after she completes fire academy and EMT training.
Mayor Michael Venezia called the hiring of Orgueira-Aponte historic.
“We are excited to have Stephanie on board and wish her a successful career,” he said. “With the new firefighter civil service test coming up, we look forward and hope that more female firefighters are hired in the future.”
Public Safety Director Sam DeMaio said working side by side, the fire chief, mayor and he will create a more diverse public safety department to reflect the community it serves.
Orgueira-Aponte said she was proud, excited and a little nervous being the first female Bloomfield firefighter.
“It was a struggle getting here, and I want to be there for everyone,” she said. “Our lives are in each other’s hands.”
Orgueira-Aponte is scheduled to speak about her experience on Sept. 25 at Brookside Park at the Girl Scout “bridging ceremony” when Brownies become Juniors.