Seenah Mischel was in awe the first time she saw a Black female firefighter as a child. Today, she is the first and only Black female firefighter and officer in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The power of representation cannot be overemphasized because seeing someone with who you share cultural and physical features doing great things works incredibly on the human psyche, especially that of children.
Mischel said seeing the Black woman firefighter in her hometown Buffalo was an eye-opener and from that point, she knew she wanted to be just like the firefighter. Interestingly, she did not get into the profession after college. She worked briefly with the US Army and relocated to Erie before the stars began to align.
A recruitment commercial was all it took to rekindle the childhood dream of fighting fires and saving lives. The advertisement specifically stated that they were in need of women and minority firefighters. Mischel said, “It was perfect” and she registered applied immediately.
According to Democrat & Chronicle, Mischel made history in 2010 as Erie’s first Black female firefighter after successfully completing her testing. Admittedly with no knowledge of what it entails to be a firefighter, she was helped by her teammates with hours of training.
Joe Walko, her former teammate, and the current Erie fire chief attest to Mischel’s dedication and willpower.
“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.”
Mischel tested for a lieutenant position and after returning an overseas deployment with the U.S. Air Force Reserves, she was greeted with the news of her confirmation, making her the first Black female officer on the Erie Bureau of Fire, stationed out of Engine Co. 8.
“It’s very exciting. I swear it feels like the best job in the world,” said Mischel.
“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.”
Out of 134 crew members at the Erie Bureau of Fire, there are only four female firefighters now at the station and the 42-year-old is the only Black female fighter at her station. Just as she was inspired by a Black woman firefighter as a child, she admits to seeing the same light in the eyes of young Black girls who see her.
Although she has never met the woman in Buffalo, that glimpse of a future she could have has stayed with her and she considers her to be a role model, Mischel aspires to be the reason someone will join the bureau one day.
“Sometimes I do see those looks I gave [the Black woman firefighter in my hometown] when I was a kid. 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,” Mischel said.
This job to the new officer was not to make a statement or a challenge. According to her, it was not in a bid to prove herself or anything she went for it because she is up for the task plus the added benefit of saving lives and supporting others along the way. She says “it’s rewarding.”
The Mayor of Pennsylvania is on a mission to increase diversity in public safety forces. The Erie fire chief Walko has plans of liaising with Mischel to recruit more minorities to enable the Mayor’s vision to become a reality because there may be more females and minorities in the city with the hopes of becoming firefighters who just need the motivation they intend to offer.