By Cindy Von Quednow
Ventura County Star, Calif.
Melissa Stillwagon didn’t know she wanted to be a firefighter until her mid-20s.
Her father had just died from cancer, and she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She was on the freeway when a fire engine passed by her.
“It was like a light bulb went off: That’s it, that’s what I want to do,” Stillwagon recalled.
After two years of school and training, she joined the Oxnard Fire Department. On Feb. 12 — 11 years later — she became the first female captain in the Oxnard Fire Department’s 115-year history.
“Everything felt like it just really fell into place for me,” Stillwagon, 37, said of first being hired by the department, where she also became a certified hazardous materials technician, a member of the honor guard, a driver training instructor and a member of the critical incident stress-management team.
She was having lunch with her mother when she received the news of her promotion.
“I was excited,” Stillwagon said. “It’s a great honor to be a part of the other captains that are here. I am really grateful for the opportunity.”
Her 5-year-old daughter was also excited to hear the news when Stillwagon picked her up from school that day.
“She just stood there, with her mouth open for like 10 seconds. Then she put her arms around me and gave me a huge hug,” she said.
Now, her responsibilities include running Oxnard’s Station 3 and its crew, as well as making decisions on how to attack fires and manage incidents. “Now that I’m part of that planning process, I’m really trying to think ahead and preplan for incidents,” she said.
Firefighter Marshall Dvorin, 24, had only worked with Stillwagon for a couple of shifts but said he had full confidence in her as a captain.
“I have no qualms about her judgment or ability and I’m looking forward to working with her,” he said.
He said he was impressed with Stillwagon’s career. “She earned it. I know she went through the same process I did to get to where she is now.”
The only time Stillwagon faced adversity was before her career started, she said. A firefighter in a different department told her it was too early in her training for her to land a job in the field.
“I was surprised by that, but it was a lot of fun to go back and tell him, ‘Guess what? I did get hired.’ ”
Stillwagon said she hopes her promotion will inspire girls and women to pursue a career in fire safety. She is the only woman in her department to work in the field.
She said helping and comforting people during delicate moments is her favorite aspect of the job.
“When people call us, they’re having a bad day, and it’s our job to go out and help them somehow,” she said. “We may not always understand what’s happening in their lives, but if we can go out and help with whatever that problem is, I enjoy that.”
One of her more memorable moments was holding the hand of a man who had been shot but survived.
“I was confused at first by it, but maybe there was something comforting about me being there,” Stillwagon said.