Written by Jennifer Tzeses.
As a young girl, Queen Anunay dreamed of growing up to make her family, and her neighborhood, proud. She never imagined, though, that one day she’d come back to stand in the line of fire —literally— to protect the very city streets that made her into the strong, decisive woman she is today.
As the Battalion Chief Firefighter of a major metropolitan city—one of only three females to hold the position in her department's 135-year history—Anunay is a unique kind of multi-hyphenate hero for her community, for her ethnicity, and for the generation of women behind her. We sat down with this courageous leader to find out just what fuels her forward.
Q. What was it that made you want to become a firefighter?
A. Being the youngest of eight, it was always told to me, “We can't afford college; if you want to go to college, you better get an academic or sports scholarship.” So, upon [high school] graduation, there were three options available: the police department, the military, and the fire service. I knew nothing about fighting fires, but when the fire department came down the street, there was respect; you knew they were coming to help. I was trying to make a better way for myself and help people, without [taking on] a lot of college debt. I was able to go to college and get a degree — and the fire department paid for it.
What do you do in your position as deputy fire chief?
I'm responsible for ensuring the safety of first responders and making sure that we deliver quality customer service. On the scene, I’m in a command vehicle giving tactical instruction for the company officers that are in the fire. I position my vehicle where I have a three-sided view of the command ground. I'm talking back and forth to company officers. They're giving me reports of what they see, such as heavy smoke showing. I advise whether or not it’s safe to advance a line in and put the fire out.
There haven't been many chief officers before me who are women. So, when I walk into a fire station, [the firefighters] are a little reluctant to follow instruction. They expect women to be timid. They expect women not to do a true analysis or take the risk that they need to take. So that’s carried with me wherever I am. I'm constantly proving myself. And I do that just by being competent.
What would you say is your most defining moment so far?
I had 15 years on the job at the time I decided to become a paramedic. I was kind of bored just jumping off the truck running into the fire. So, when I got the opportunity, it opened doors. It was the proudest moment of my life when I became a paramedic. I was able to be on the scene and the one that puts in the EKG leads and administers medicine by IV to the patient.
I looked in the mirror once in the firehouse and said, “I'm at least going to retire from this department as a paramedic and a captain.” And that's where I set myself to start moving forward and going up the chain.
What is it like to save a life?
It is humbling. When I was 19, a call came in at like three in the morning from a high-rise building. You could tell there was going to be life lost in this fire. And I remember walking up and seeing all the smoke coming out, and just kind of pausing. My officer was like, “Let's put the ladder up,” and then I saw someone holding a baby out of the window, and then I’m holding the baby—who’s still alive but burned over 80 percent of his body. I felt like I was delivering something powerful. I’m happy I got them out of the situation. But then I’m like, “What's the end story for this baby?”
As a medic, I recently had the opportunity [to save] the life of a young guy, in front of his wife and kids. He had no medical history—just flu-like symptoms a couple of days before—and went into cardiac arrest. When I walked into that situation, the guy was on the floor unresponsive; his child is there, his wife; everybody's frantic and then I’m shocking him, and giving him medication, and then he comes out okay. That is a surreal feeling. When I first saw him, he was blue on the ground, and now he's saying, “Thank you.”
How do you persevere through the most challenging scenarios?
When we show up, it's your worst day. It's a possibility of losing a family member. Your vehicle is on fire. Your house is on fire. So, we have to be on our game. We have to have that professionalism, that compassion, and we have to know how to make your situation better.
Fire doesn't discriminate. And in training, as a woman, carrying hoses and a 50-pound breathing bottle on your back, you have to be physically prepared because once the fire hits, it's taking out anything in its path. So, if you're weak in any regard, it will be evident. And if you drop the hose, guess what? The fire's right there. And it's not only going to affect you, it's going to take out your whole crew.
What advice would you give someone else coming up through the ranks?
Be the pink elephant in the room and say the things that no one else is comfortable saying. That brings out what they really hire you to be. The department knows they need diversity, but someone has to be bold enough to be who they are and not be afraid to be challenged.
Coming into the fire service, there were very few women in positions (other than recruits) that I aspired to. After being a firefighter, I realized that I needed to create the vision of a woman in a commanding position. What motivates me is that there aren't women seated at the table. I'm in a hurry to fill the seat.
I empower young women through our mentorship program, by putting them in the seat beside me. I have them shadow me. I'm constantly exposing them to something different, other than operations. I also make it clear that it's doable. I'm here. I'm doing it. There is nothing extraordinary about what we do—it’s just passion. And you have to be focused and you have to have discipline. I make them understand that you must be comfortable being uncomfortable.
How do you power America forward?
Empowerment is one of my caveats and it’s in my leadership style. Mentoring, reaching back and encouraging anyone coming from behind — being that close friend [you need] to push you when you're not able. I set the example and am present.
It's very important that the fire service starts to view women differently. So what powers me forward is making sure that the biases and the stereotyping have a challenging competitor or a person here that did a great job, not just because she was a woman, but because she studied the craft and she made it a happier place for women to do a great job. We don't have a seat at the table. I carry that burden on my shoulders to make sure that when we do get to the table, we're viewed equally, and they expect us to do a good job.
When I hear a woman ask whether or not she belongs, it makes me feel humbled but responsible for her existence going forward.