Honoring a hometown hero

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‘I’m honored to be here standing on your shoulders. Your brave efforts and hard work paved the way for me to be here and I really appreciate you guys. I appreciate the whole community coming out to greet me.’

-Alicia Shepard

First Black Daytona Beach firefighter inspires community

Firefighter Alicia Shepard holds one of a firefighter’s best-known tools – an ax.

PHOTOS BY KARSCEAL TURNER/SPECIAL TO THE DAYTONA TIMES

BY KARSCEAL TURNER
SPECIAL TO THE DAYTONA TIMES

Alicia Shepard never set out to be the first – she simply wanted to become a firefighter. It never was about being the first Black woman pursuing a career in a field predominately dominated by White males. It was about becoming a firefighter, period.

It took the 2006 Atlantic High School graduate a dozen years to arrive at her destination, but she now calls Daytona Beach Fire Department Station No. 1 home. One day on, two days off a shift. The path toward realizing her dream was riddled with setbacks such as tuition cost, discouragement and the addition of three children.

At one time, Shepard, 33, was told that there simply weren’t enough people interested in firefighting to form a class, but she was hired in January 2019 and now is one of the 104 Daytona Beach firefighters.

Although Shepard holds the distinction of being the only Black female firefighter in the department’s 100-year existence, she is as undaunted by those statistics as she is when racing into a burning structure.

Historic feat

Shepard received special recognition during a ceremony to honor local firefighters on March 30 in Daytona Beach. The program was organized by Precise Professional Firefighters of Daytona Beach and the International Association of Black Firefighters at the former Bonner Elementary Auditorium. Pioneer Black firefighters and rescue workers were recognized at the program.

In attendance were Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry, who gave remarks, and other local dignitaries.

At the ceremony, Shepard said she felt the true weight of what she accomplished.

“This is home, I lived in Pine Haven [Apartments]; I’m an emotional person. You can never understand everything that has happened to me in this journey, I wanted to give up several times. I saw many people quit; I pushed through. I finally got there,” Shepard shared.

“I am thankful for the fire brotherhood, the people who helped me with tuition for fire school. I never knew I was the only one until people kept pulling me aside about it. When I saw it in the paper it really hit me. I asked my daughter about it and she said she couldn’t talk about it because she might cry, then we both started to cry.”

She addressed members of the organizations sitting in the first row, which included a who’s who of firsts regarding Black men in the Daytona Beach Fire Department – from lieutenants to chiefs to battalion chiefs.

“I’m honored to be here standing on your shoulders,” Shepard said. “Your brave efforts and hard work paved the way for me to be here and I really appreciate you guys. I appreciate the whole community coming out to greet me.”

Long time coming

In February, 24-year-old Dejah Woods made history as DeLand’s first Black female firefighter.

“I’m still stuck on the fact that I’m the first in Daytona Beach. There was a first Black female fire inspector back in the day and people mixed up the terms. I’m the first Black female firefighter/EMT to actually be on the line,” Shepard explained. “It’s amazing to me know that I am the first to go out there and save lives and save property.”

In Daytona Beach, there are 16 Black firefighters, Shepard is included in that count, but it was a long time coming.

“Here we are in 2021. This department has been around over 100 years and I’m the first female firefighter. it’s a milestone and a blessing.” Shepard noted.

Some history

The Daytona Beach Fire Department was organized in 1898, and in 1902, the city purchased its first chemical fire engine. In 1909 the first paid fire chief, Henry T. Titus was hired.

Fast forward to 2021 and the department recognizes its first Black female firefighter. This fact was not lost among the city’s current firefighters.

“We’re still using the term ‘first’ after 112 years of service. When they see Alicia out there, they’ll say it can be done,” said Daytona firefighter Lt. Andre Chaney.

“We waited as long as we could before organizing this recognition ceremony. We wanted to see what the department would do but after watching a neighboring city acknowledge their first Black female firefighter, we had to act. We want to acknowledge her efforts and recognize the fact that she is the first in Daytona Beach. We say, ‘Thank you,’ to her.”

Battalion Chief Larry Stoney echoed those remarks.

“African Americans in this area are undervalued and underappreciated. It’s crazy to see how things are still in 2021. No one outside the ethnic group can understand what it is to be Black in America,” he said.

‘Duchess’ of ‘The Rock’

Shortly after first arriving at Station No. 1, known as “The Rock,’’ Shepard was crowned “Duchess’’ of the Volusia County A shift. She started at Station 7 on 2545 LPGA Blvd., then worked at No. 6 at 20 Beville Road before her current location at Station No. 1, 301 S. Beach St. It’s also the business of the stations.

Lt. Anthony Russo later described the premise behind the nickname Duchess.

“Firefighters often acquire nicknames throughout their careers. A couple of ours include Rowdy Bowdy, Huggy Bear and Dr. Giggles, just to name a few. Alicia’s comes from the fact that she brings a level of class that normally doesn’t come natural to firefighters,’’ Russo explained.

“She’s able to bring a woman’s touch to any situation. But don’t be fooled, when the situation dictates, like at a structure fire (and I’ve witnessed this a number of times), she goes into straight beast mode. So, we refer to her as royalty because that’s how she approaches every aspect of her job,” Russo said.

He calls Shepard “one of the best firefighters an officer or any member of a crew could ask for.’’

“She brings compassion, motivation, creativity, humor, and most of all, class every day she arrives. She fits so well with our team because she never stops moving, never stops trying to improve her situation, and always wants to help if any of us are having difficulties,’’ added.

Firefighter Alicia Shepard speaks to well-wishers on March 30 at a recognition ceremony for Black firefighter pioneers.

Earned her respect

Shepard chimed in. “We have a great relationship. They all respect me. We keep everything respectful. I get along with and sit in with them. I even put them in their places when they act wrong.”

Shepard’s passion was manifested as she described her first fire call.

“It was a motorcycle fire during Bike Week. It was a huge rush. I grabbed my gear, jumped out of the truck. I started putting out the fire. As a probationary firefighter, I’m expected to do it all. I was shaking in my boots,” she recalled.

As she was fighting the fire, it occurred to her that she had no helmet on.

“I continued putting the fire out and my lieutenant at the time (John Turlosio) comes over and places my helmet on my head while I’m fighting the fire. I appreciate how he handled that. Instead of scolding me, he congratulated me on my first fire. I did it! It definitely was a rush. It was an honor having my first fire instructor at DSC (Daytona State College) as my first lieutenant,” Shepard said.

Rough times

According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, about 4% of all firefighters are women, and just over 8% are Black.

“I would love to move up the ranks and become a driver and on up the ladder. Who’s to say I can’t become chief someday,” Shepard said.

Shepard said her journey was filled with obstacles. She traded a position in social service to pursue a career as a firefighter back in 2017. Shepard worked in landscaping and as a certified nursing assistant to keep money coming in. At one point, she failed the state certification physical exam.

“I didn’t give up. My children saw all of that,” Shepard noted. “Although I passed that certification, I still had to apply for the job and still needed to achieve EMT certification. There are still physical training standards if selected at a particular station.”

Shepard said it was tough pursuing her dream while raising three children ages 10, 13 and 16. She credits God with guiding her through the process to achieve her dream.

“I have a great relationship with God. It’s a personal thing. My relationship is awesome, I talk to him all day, every day. I continually give thanks for everything,” she related.

‘A juggling act’

But the hardest part is spending time away from her children.

“The call volume at the station makes the time pass, but 24 hours away from your kids and family is a lot. I’m also in paramedic school with clinicals so I get a little backlash from my kids,” she explained.

“In the beginning, my son let me know his concerns, but he was excited as well; they went on the journey with me. It really is a juggling act. When I actually have a free day, I try to make the most of it with my children with a special outing to make up for always being busy.”

According to Shepard, her family is proud of her accomplishment.

“My grandmother through marriage (Bearnice Lloyd) is 88 years old and for her to see that I accomplished my goal from years ago is a great feeling. She’s been through and seen some stuff that people today can’t truly comprehend or appreciate,” Shepard said.

“It brings me to tears that she is proud of me. She checked for me in the newspaper every day. She’s proud that I’m the first Black female firefighter. Granny is able to see that her baby made it.’’

‘Stick to it’

Shepard, who loves boxing and trains in her spare time, said her message to aspiring firefighters is to go for it.

“Stick to it. Self-motivation is key along with a support group. If you can stay motivated to get to where you want to go no matter how hard it gets, in the end its very rewarding. If I weren’t fighting fires, I’d probably have a small home-assisted living facility. That is my dream, my goal, to become a firefighter and own my own assisted living care facility.’’ 

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