LOS ANGELES (CBS) — For Sarah Cortez, of Whittier, a day out with her 10-month-old daughter Brooklyn is a cherished moment.
More than 40 miles away, in her home in Ladera Ranch, Eleni Pappas is enjoying a quiet moment with her 2-year-old daughter, Catherine.
These two mothers have one passion.
“Right now, all she knows is mommy drives the fire truck,” laughs Pappas.
Pappas is a 12-year veteran of L.A. Country Fire who serves as a captain and one of the only few female firefighters in the department.
“When I came on with Los Angeles County Fire Department I believe we had six to eight women. Now, over the course of the years, we have 33.”
CBS2’s Pat Harvey spoke to these women about the challenges and joys of the job.
Harvey: “Did you know how difficult it would be or that there weren’t many women involved in firefighting at that time?”
Pappas: “I just knew it was opened to women and I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna to do it. It takes time, it takes hard work. When you enter into a profession where there is a tight knit group of people that have already proven themselves in each other – no matter what gender you are – now they need to know they can trust you.”
Captain Pappas has earned that badge of trust. With the exception of the Station Fire, when she was pregnant with Catherine, she worked the front line of every major fire in Los Angeles County.
Pappas: “Still, it’s a blue collar job. It’s a very physical job.”
“I get surprised looks every day,” says firefighter and paramedic Sarah Cortez, who is among the elite few. It’s her seventh year on the squad.
Cortez: “I usually get two thumbs up from the women, you know, proud that I’m representing the females, but most people are really shocked. This lady found out I was a firefighter paramedic. They asked what I do when there was a fire: ‘Do I wait outside when the guys go and fight the fire?’ That’s just not the case. We do the same thing that the guys do.”
In 2007, Cortez fought the Malibu Canyon and Buckweed fires, keeping her away from home for 11 straight days. She also fought the Corral Fire.
“This is my only way to see my baby from home,” she says while talking to her smart phone. “Can you clap for me? Clap. Yay, good girl!”
Cortez: “This year, I worked all the holidays, so my husband brought Brooklyn over to the station, just basically have a family time there. A lot of people don’t understand why I want to be a mother and have this job that is potentially be dangerous and willing to risk my life. I love helping people and I love what I do. And, I think that balances me as a person, and when I’m balanced as a person, I think I’m a better mother. So people should know you can do both.”
Both Pappas and Cortez call Fire Station 161 in the city of Hawthorne their second home.
Pappas: “We have our bed and our chair, just a small place for us to come to at night. Upstairs is where the rest of the crew is. This station is an older fire station. It was built in the 1950s and back then women were not in the fire service, so we have to make some adjustments in order to preserve the privacy between the few women that are here as opposed to the majority of the men that are here.”
Harvey: “Such as the bathroom. So right now it’s open?”
Cortez: “No men are in there. It’s the same thing as living in your house with your family, you get to know each other.”
Cortez: “Hey, Jeffrey! Can you get out? I need to use the restroom. Tell him get out.”
Jeffrey: “Just like home, I get booted.”
Harvey: “See you, Jeffrey. Thank you!”
Harvey: “You work with Sarah. Is that a blessing? I say that because here you are, you are two women at the station together.”
Pappas: “We don’t see it as two females working together. I think we have such a diverse crew from different backgrounds. We’re each a different peg that makes a whole.”
Cortez: “They see me as their partner. They don’t treat me any different and I don’t expect them to and I don’t want them to.”
Cortez: “Ultimately, when I’m not at the fire station, my firefighter hat comes off and my mommy hat comes on.”
Pappas: “It’s just part of life. The good part is you’re always able to come home.”