When Heather Fisher was around 10 years old, she and her family heard sirens one night.
A fire had started around the corner from her Milpitas home. As she watched it burning from her parents’ upstairs bedroom, she found herself terrified…but also intrigued.
It was her first experience seeing a fire like that, and it literally “sparked” something inside of her.
Now, years later, she is one of two women firefighters at the Milpitas Fire Department (MFD).
Fisher has spent nearly a decade working for MFD. Along with being a firefighter, she’s also a Hazmat Specialist and an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Specialist.
As a child, Fisher looked up to her older brother. After he became a lifeguard as a teenager, she followed in his footsteps, also becoming one for a summer job. When her brother got older, he became a police officer, while she gravitated toward service in fire.
“Once I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional softball player, I decided that fire was going to be a great life decision,” said Fisher, who played softball for the North Valley Bobby Sox in Milpitas, and then later at Mitty High School.
Kristen Cunningham is considered the first female “legacy” of the Milpitas Fire Department. A legacy is defined as anyone whose parents or other family members served in the department before them. In Cunningham’s case, her father, Richard Cunningham, served with MFD for 22 years, recently retiring from his role as Fire Captain.
“I got to work with my dad twice before he retired in 2020,” said Cunningham, who feels completely at ease with being a part of the fire department.
“I grew up around this department my whole life,” Cunningham added. “It’s a familiar lifestyle for me. Seeing my dad drive off to calls…”
When Cunningham was younger, she was drawn to helping people. In high school, she took a sports medicine class and fell in love with the medical side of things.
“But then I took a kinesiology course my first year of college and hated it,” said Cunningham. “I told my dad I didn’t know what to do. He told me to try and take an EMT class.”
Cunningham did her research and found that there were multiple career paths one could take with an EMT credential.
So she ventured off to paramedic school and graduated at age 20.
“I could give morphine, fentanyl, and narcotic medications to other people – and at that time, I couldn’t even legally drink,” said Cunningham. “Which I always thought was pretty entertaining.”
From there, Cunningham became an Ambulance Paramedic for two years, after which she decided to go to Fire Academy.
“I got a job offer from the Milpitas Fire Department the day before I graduated,” said Cunningham.
At present, the Milpitas Fire Department has a total of 57 firefighters.
Every firefighter with MFD is on a 48/96 schedule. This means they work and live at the station for two straight days then go home for four.
Fisher believes that firefighters must be strong and have endurance, while also having the right attitude to function within a high-stress environment.
“And it’s not just about having the physical ability. I tell a lot of young firefighters: you have to be a thinking firefighter now,” said Fisher. “Not just be told what to do, but know what to do and how to evaluate situations on your own.”
Cunningham spoke specifically of women and their ability to bring a much-needed softer side to certain situations faced by firefighters.
“Women are prone to that maternal instinct: compassion, adaptability, open-mindedness,” said Cunningham.
Although they are the only two women firefighters with MFD, both Fisher and Cunningham expressed that they never feel as if they’re being treated any differently.
“The department is supportive of everybody,” said Fisher. “You don’t think about men or women, you just think about firefighters. In our department, everyone is a member of the team.”
Cunningham also added: “They expect me to perform the tasks and job at the same level as everyone else.”
Fire Chief Brian Sherrard feels fortunate to have both women as part of MFD. He spoke of how the department places a high priority on “creating and maintaining a culture which emphasizes and celebrates the benefits of a diverse and inclusive working environment.”
“I am thrilled to have Kristen and Heather as members of our Fire Department. They are well-respected by their peers and contribute on a daily basis towards our goals of providing the highest levels of fire prevention, education, preparedness, and emergency response,” shared Chief Sherrard. “They serve as excellent role models and ambassadors for women who have a desire to pursue a career in the fire service.”
Within Milpitas Fire Department culture, the concepts of mentorship, training, and passing the torch to the next generation are all very important. Recently, a Fire Academy was running, and Fisher had an opportunity to serve there as one of the instructors among some of the firefighters that she had actually taught in the past.
“Seeing them grow and develop into instructors…it put a huge smile on my face to see them pass on things that I taught them to a new generation,” said Fisher.
She also feels that having more strong female fire service members is essential for providing guidance to girls and women who might be interested in pursuing firefighting as a career.
Cunningham spoke of what Girls’ Camps have to offer. Held throughout the country during different parts of the year, these camps help to spark confidence in young women while giving them a deeper understanding of what fire service is really like.
“I don’t think there’s enough representation. Less than four percent of us in the field are women,” said Cunningham. “It’s hard to see yourself doing something when you haven’t seen anyone who looks like yourself doing it.”