Although statistics vary, they consistently show that women make up just a small percentage of first responders in the United States. This holds true locally. Prescott Woman magazine reached out to local police and firefighters to learn more about their first responder experiences. While each woman shared a unique story, they all have in common the desire to help their community members and a sense of fulfillment that comes from doing so. None of them shies away from a challenge, and many of them said the day-to-day variety of their job keeps things fresh. Their responses have been edited for length.


‘One of the Most Rewarding Jobs’ - Local Law Enforcement

Making a Difference in the Community Tops the List of Reasons Local Law Enforcement Women Love Their Jobs

As Lorraine Zannini worked her way through college in Northern Arizona, she took an internship with the Flagstaff Prescott Police Department’s (FPD) Investigations Division. That peek into the day-to-day lives of officers and detectives, and the connections she made, had her leaning toward becoming a police officer.

In the winter of 2014, Tyler Stewart, an officer with FPD and someone Lorraine had worked with before, was shot and killed on duty. The suspect was another acquaintance of Lorraine’s.

“I was in the hallway near the emergency room when Tyler was rushed to the operating room and ultimately passed away. I remember seeing his parents, family, and friends in the hallway … and I can still feel the overwhelming grief that was felt by the entire hospital that day. After hearing of his death and the situation surrounding it, I decided I would take up the badge in Tyler’s stead and worked to complete my college degree so I could put in my application, which I did in the winter of 2015, one year later.”

Now, she’s a detective with Prescott Police Department (PPD).

PPD Detective Jasmine Cardenas said, “From a young age, I always knew that my calling was to serve others.”

She became a detention officer with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) in 2016, and in July 2019, she joined PPD as a recruit.

“I consider myself a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” she said, “so I enjoy the anticipation and challenges that come with the job. I also enjoy interacting with the public. Although we often deal with people on their worst days, it’s an opportunity to change people’s perception of police work and make a positive impact in their life.”

Similarly, Prescott Valley Police Department (PVPD) Lieutenant Nancy Roberts said that growing up, “I was always trying to help people in any way I could to fix their problems or dilemmas. I knew I wanted to do something to utilize these skills.”

Over the course of her lifetime, she found that she was able to remain calm and offer assistance during tragic, chaotic situations, such as fatal traffic collisions and emergency situations. As a resident assistant in college, she worked hand in hand with campus police—and realized that was her passion.

Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office deputy Theresa Kennedy and her brother grew up reenacting TV shows like Adam-12 and Emergency. Throughout young adulthood, they both became lifeguards, attended Emergency Medical Technician courses, and became volunteer firefighters. Eventually, she became a deputy: “I’ve always wanted to have a job that is challenging, that has the potential for excitement, that I may be able to help someone (no matter how small), and I’m paid to be nosy.”

Morgan Wilson, a patrol officer with PVPD, said, “I entered this career field to make a positive impact on my community by helping people.”

“My favorite thing about being a police officer is being there for people in need,” she said. “While in training for this job, I had a mentor tell me that we [officers] see people on some of the worst days of their lives. My [reaction] to that statement was that I want to be the best person I can be for those people in their time of need.”

“It’s a difficult career path,” said Ashley Santillan, Jasmine’s childhood friend and a PPD officer. She decided to pursue this profession instead of becoming a military nurse after going for a ride-along with Jasmine.

As she settled into policing, she realized what it’s all about: “Having a problem and having to solve it. It’s challenging in all facets: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s very powerful.”

“It’s just so incredible to know once you get home—‘I was able to help someone feel safe. I was able to solve an issue and hopefully this person can say they’re okay.’”

April Zicopoulos, an officer with PVPD, echoed that: “I genuinely enjoy helping others in any way I can, and believe if we can all make a difference for at least one person, our lives can be fulfilling. Being a police officer gives us that opportunity every single day on small and large scales.”

Encountering different people every day lends perspective, she said. “We get to show that we are human, too, and relate to people on an entirely different level while being able to help them in the hardest moments. The impact that allows officers to make is unmatched and incredibly fulfilling.”

Michelle Woods, a traffic officer with PVPD, enjoyed the comradery and teamwork of the military, and police work put her into a similar environment. Plus, she aspires to become a trauma counselor, and this career is a great way to learn about psychology and human behavior.

She most enjoys the variety of her job; and, it’s a double-edged sword.

“Nothing is the same twice, and nothing is predictable. This keeps the days interesting. While the variety keeps the gears moving, sometimes those gears need to move on weekends or after a long day. The unpredictability can have officers working 40 hours a week … or 80.”

Shayleen Elenz, PVPD Specialty Detective, worked as a YCSO dispatcher before deciding to become a police officer. “I decided that I wanted to do more. I loved being there to help people, but I wanted to be on the front lines.”

Working as a Specialty Detective affords Shayleen the opportunity to attend community events and talk with youth and community, which she said she enjoys. On the other hand, working in family crimes exposes her to lots of difficult situations.

Theresa, who’s been a deputy since 1994, said she appreciates that younger deputies trust her enough to ask for guidance, and she enjoys working with others whom she can trust with her life. Also, she appreciates that “there are still civilians out there who care about us and would be willing to step in and help us if we needed them.”

Repeated exposure to tough situations can take its toll, the women said.

“We don’t see people at their best moments in life very often,” Nancy said. “The majority of our calls are because someone is having an event in their life that is intolerable, sometimes even unfathomable, and something they are unable to handle, themselves. We are exposed to reoccurring tragic events, such as the loss of life, having to fight for your own life, or saving someone else’s life. The crazy part is that all of these things can happen on the same shift, within hours of one another.”

Acknowledging that they notice most law enforcement professionals are men, these women also said they’ve felt welcomed by their male counterparts.

“We all do the same job,” Theresa said. “If we are to be judged, it should be on our work ethic, not our gender or any other thing.”

Still, “Some people in the community still feel as though law enforcement is a men’s job,” Morgan said. “They either do not take me seriously, ignore me, or talk down to me, due only to my gender. Also, some community members have described me as aggressive, even when I act the same way as my male counterparts who they deem acceptable.”

“Regardless of how police are portrayed [in the media], the need for law, order, and justice stays constant,” Lorraine said. “You don’t need to be a body builder or a master of firearms or a racecar driver to be a police officer. What you need is the spirit and determination to help people and be a leader within your community, and that cannot be trained into you at an academy.”

“It’s a job you get paid for,” Ashley said, “but there’s no money to equate to how incredible it feels after being of service to someone.”

Morgan said she knows “law enforcement in the news lately is not held in high regard,” and when she first joined law enforcement in 2020, she received criticism for her choice.

“I want people to know that the men and women I work beside every day have become a second family to me … I go to work every day and I know that I choose this profession for the right reasons—to help as many people as I can. This job is not just writing speeding tickets and writing reports. It is making a positive impact on our community.”

“I have enjoyed this job for almost thirty years,” Theresa said. “I wish I could be young and do this forever, but my time will end and we need people who want to be leaders to take [the place of deputies who are retiring].”

The job, she said, “may, sometimes, seem thankless; that is not true. There are more people wishing you well than wanting to cause you harm.”

“If you feel called to serve,” April said, “do so. Do not let anything hold you back. Go on ride-alongs with agencies you’re interested in, and get to know the officers in their departments to find the best fit. Be confident in yourself and your abilities, and always be willing to learn, every single day. It’s an amazing role not only as a job, but in life.”

Along the same lines, Jasmine said, “Police work is a very noble and rewarding profession. There are many sacrifices that come with the career, but you also gain a family. If you feel like it’s your calling, take a leap of faith. We need more women in law enforcement that have the tenacity and wisdom to make a difference in our communities.”

‘The Best Job in the World’ - Local Firefighters

Local Female Firefighters Enjoy the Physical and Mental Challenges of the Job While Helping Members of Their Community

“Being a firefighter is my favorite thing,” said Prescott Fire Department (PFD) firefighter/paramedic Imani Moore. “I love that my coworkers are my family. I love that every day is different. I love that there are so many ways to challenge myself and there’s always something to learn. I love that I can help people.”

PFD Firefighter/EMT Nicole Dileo is living her dream; at five she knew she wanted to be a firefighter after seeing her mom work as an advocate for the volunteer Emergency Medical Services department at a small Colorado fire department. “She was so passionate about helping people, and I knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps.”

When her mom was killed when Nicole was 18, the firefighters who responded to the scene were able to stabilize her long enough that the family could say goodbye. Nicole said, “I knew if I could help someone like those firefighters did that day, it would be such an honor.”

Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA) Engineer/Paramedic Leslie Harper said, “I knew becoming a firefighter would be challenging, both physically and mentally, which excited me. I wanted a career that would support me and push me to be better, and that is exactly what I found.”

She also found family. “My favorite thing about being a first responder is the second family you create just by stepping foot into the career. We live together one-third of our lives, so there is no doubt we create special bonds with each other over the years. I have learned so much about life, both career and non-career-related through the wealth of knowledge I am surround by at work. It’s truly more than I expected.”

CAFMA Firefighter Tia Isbell enjoys her job’s variety: “My favorite part of working in this field is that no day is ever the same,” she said. “It keeps everything fresh and your skills sharp. You come into work and do something different every day!”

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Nicole said. “It’s exciting getting on that engine every day. I really enjoy seeing when we make a difference and can positively affect someone’s life.”

One constant, the women said: the job’s challenges—physical and mental.

Imani said, “Some of the stuff we see can be hard to deal with, so you have to find outlets. I have God, I see a therapist, we (firefighters) have each other, I have a great husband, and I have my hobbies.”

Shifts last 24 to 72 hours, and not being able to go home each night can be tough, Leslie said. The trade-off: firefighters get roughly 20 days per month off from work. Tia noted she welcomes the physical challenges, and the other women echoed that.

“Make no mistake,” Leslie said, “women are required to perform the same physical tasks as men are in the fire service. Nicole said, “I told myself in the academy that if I wasn’t able to keep up and do as well as, if not better than, the guys, then I had no business being in the field. It takes a strong mind.”

Despite the challenges, Tia said, “It’s fun to work in a field that allows you to grow both physically and mentally to meet the demands of the job.”

Leslie admitted that if she hadn’t met female role models, the path to becoming a career firefighter may have felt too difficult or impossible to navigate.

Imani said she’s always been interested in medicine, but an experience when she was 14 ignited her interest in EMS: “I was in the car with my mom, following behind some of my parents’ friends on motorcycles. One of them laid their bike down and hit her head pretty hard. Everything felt chaotic. No one knew what to do. An off-duty firefighter/paramedic pulled over to help. I don’t remember what exactly she did, but I do remember the calm she brought over the situation. She knew what to do, and I remember never wanting to feel that helpless again. When I got back in the car with my mom, I told her, ‘I want to be her.’”

All of the firefighters acknowledged they’ve noticed women make up only a small percentage of fire service personnel, but they added that that didn’t stop them from pursuing this tough and rewarding career. Fire departments hire on character, they said, and each firefighter brings her own skills and perspectives.

“This career really is open to all,” Imani said, “as long as you’re willing to put in the work.”

“This is an extremely fun and rewarding job,” Tia said. “You make fantastic friends, and your crew feels like family.”

Leslie encourages anyone interested in the fire service to do a ride-along with firefighters. “What better way to know if you’re going to like something than actually being able to see it firsthand? I promise, when you experience those flashing lights and sirens kick on, knowing we’re on our way to help someone in need, you will be hooked.”

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