Lt. Seenah Mischel clears the scene after a chimney fire call in Erie, Pa., Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Mischel successfully completed her candidate testing and was hired in 2010, becoming Erie’s first Black female firefighter. She made more history in August when, after returning from an overseas deployment with the U.S. Air Force Reserves, she learned that she had received a lieutenant’s position that she had tested for, becoming the city fire bureau’s first Black female officer. Mischel was to be officially sworn in to the new position during a promotion ceremony at Erie City Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Christopher Millette/Erie Times-News via AP)
By TIM HAHN, Erie Times-News
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Seenah Mischel was in grade school when she said she saw something one day in her hometown of Buffalo that “just stopped me in my tracks.”
It was a Black female firefighter, “someone who looked just like me,” climbing off a fire truck.
“I swear, never before in time had I thought I could do something like that,” Mischel said. “Seeing someone doing it was an eye-opener. From that point, I wanted to do it.”
Lt. Seenah Mischel, the Erie Bureau of Fire’s first Black female firefighter when she was hired in 2010, in August was named the bureau’s first Black female officer.
Mischel, 42, didn’t seek her dream of becoming a firefighter right away. But after college, a stint in the U.S. Army and a move to Erie, she said she decided to go for the job while driving to work one day after hearing a radio announcement about the Erie Bureau of Fire recruiting new firefighter candidates.
“They were looking for women and minorities to apply. It was perfect. I signed up right away,” she said.
Mischel successfully completed her candidate testing and was hired in 2010, becoming Erie’s first Black female firefighter. She made more history in August when, after returning from an overseas deployment with the U.S. Air Force Reserves, she learned that she had received a lieutenant’s position that she had tested for, becoming the city fire bureau’s first Black female officer.
Mischel was to be officially sworn in to the new position during a promotion ceremony at Erie City Hall on Wednesday. The recent promotions of six other city firefighters were also to be recognized during the ceremony.
“It’s very exciting. I swear it feels like the best job in the world,” said Mischel, who is the first in her family to enter the fire service. “I feel like I wasted time not going for it sooner. I can kick myself now, I guess, for wasting time. Because once I got into it I was so happy and fulfilled I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
Mischel admits that she entered the city fire service with “zero experience in firefighting.” But she credits members of one of her early crews — Fred Gillespie, Kevin Troyer, Ricky Kuhn, and Joe Walko, who now serves as Erie’s fire chief — with helping to provide the training and education she needed.
“Those guys were pivotal in grooming me as a firefighter. They made me into the firefighter I am now. I am extremely grateful and proud,” she said.
Walko said Mischel was willing to learn and was self-motivated, and she “really dug in and got into the fire science and techniques.”
“She was always a go-getter,” he said. “We taught her the ins and outs and had a great time. I think we broke her in well.”
The crew that Mischel worked with those early years gelled and they were really like a family, Walko said.
“We had a bunch of good times together,” he said. “She is a good woman and a great firefighter. It was great to have her on our team.”
Now that she is an officer on the Erie Bureau of Fire, stationed out of Engine Co. 8 on East Avenue, Mischel said she wants to be trusted and receptive in her new position and wants to continue to grow and learn.
“I definitely want to live up to the standards and hopefully will be able to achieve that,” she said.
Mischel said she has learned a little more about the firefighter in Buffalo, now retired, who was her inspiration for considering a career in firefighting from some City of Buffalo firefighters who are in her airfield firefighter unit of the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Though she has never met the woman, Mischel said she still serves as her role model.
Mischel, one of four female firefighters on the 134-member Erie Bureau of Fire and currently its only Black member, said she knows that she, too, might serve as a role model for other females and minorities in Erie who might be thinking of making firefighting a career.
“Sometimes I do see those looks I gave her when I was a kid,” she said. “I see it in the eyes of kids when they stop and look at me, never realizing that firefighters on the job are someone who looks like them.”
Walko said Mischel is a role model, and when it comes to the recruitment of minorities for the city fire bureau, “she is going to be up front with the rest of us” in fulfilling Mayor Joe Schember’s mission of increasing the diversity of the city’s public safety forces.
“She is more than willing to participate, and she is going to be an asset in recruiting,” he said.
Mischel said she tries to encourage anyone with an interest in becoming a firefighter to follow it through. She said she doesn’t believe there is anything that anyone can’t do if they want to do it, and she does not see any obstacles for women who want to do it.
“I didn’t pursue this job as a challenge or something I had to fight for. I never felt it was anything I had to prove. I had the mindset of doing it because I know I can and I feel up for it,” she said. “I think it’s just attitude. If there are young women who feel this is something they may want to do, I say go for it.”
Mischel is happy she did.
“I can’t explain it. It’s different every day,” she said of her career. “You don’t know what you are going to get. We literally save lives, and other times we’re there for support. It’s rewarding.”