Kelsey Fuller still gets razzed about her first call with the Princeton Volunteer Fire Department.
It was the night nearly a year ago that Golden Hills Ice Cream Shoppe burned to the ground, with its owner barely escaping a backroom in the fully engulfed building.
At age 17, and a new recruit in the department’s junior program, Fuller spent much of her time getting coffee for everyone else.
“I didn’t have a lot of practice with the hoses or the equipment. I kind of just ran and got tools for other members. I filled air tanks for them to wear and this sounds funny but I got coffee for everyone. We went to Chevron quite a bit that night. People joke with me about it all the time.”
Since that night Fuller has responded to approximately 60 calls with the local fire squad – gratefully taking on increasing responsibilities. In December, as soon as her birthday passed and she was old enough to apply, she also became the youngest member of Princeton’s Highway Rescue Department.
“A couple of years ago this is not what I thought I was going to be doing. This is not the path I thought I would take,” she said.
Fuller is currently in Grade 12 at Princeton Secondary School. She takes her pager to calls, and leaves class whenever she can when there is an emergency. She practices every week with the fire department and twice a month with highway rescue.
In September she hopes to be accepted into the Texas Fire Academy. “It’s one of the best schools in North America.” Her goal is to become a professional firefighter, and also pursue training as a paramedic and Emergency Medical Responder.
“In Kindergarten I think the first question they asked was ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said I was going to be a veterinarian.”
Fuller’s interest in emergency response was sparked two years ago when members of the volunteer fire department made a presentation at the high school.
“I was absolutely terrified of fires and I wanted to get on at the fire hall to overcome my fear,” she said. “It’s definitely helped because I’m not afraid of fires anymore.”
Working with both fire and highway rescue has also nurtured a feeling of self-confidence and self-reliance.
“I just like to know that I can help people in emergency situations when they know they can’t help themselves. If they do lose a house or in highway rescue if there is a fatal I can know I did my best to get closure for the family.”
One of her reasons for signing on with the highway rescue was to gain experience working in intense situations. She wanted to know, plainly, if she could handle the stress involved in situations where people are critically injured or killed.
She was on call last month when a logging truck plunged down an embankment on Highway 5A, killing the driver instantly.
“We didn’t know we were going to a fatal call. We knew it was rope rescue and I thought ‘okay, I can do rope rescue.’ We got there and it was a fatal. I stayed in the right mind frame, that this is a job and I can’t let it bother me.”
It was only the following day, after Fuller saw coverage of the accident on the news, that she felt any symptoms of trauma.
“It did affect me for about four days and I talked to the stress management people to deal with it. I didn’t hide it from anybody, about it bugging me. I think what helped a lot was just talking about it….I just know we had closure for that gentleman’s family.”
Despite her “get us a coffee” introduction to emergency response, Fuller said she feels no discrimination on the fire department or the rescue team because of her age or gender.
There are seven women volunteer fire fighters in Princeton and three members of highway rescue are women.
“It definitely makes me realize that someone 18 years old can do the same things as people with more experience,” she said, while displaying a photo of the first car door she removed with the Jaws of Life. “You work with the guys and it’s part of the job. You feel like family pretty much, with the whole crew and everything.”
One of Fuller’s greatest supporters is her mother. “She thinks I might be crazy but she also thinks it’s awesome that I have decided to take this path and she knows I’ll always have a job. She’s proud of me, for sure.”