Persistence pays off for History-Making Air Guardsman

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney
  • 103rd Airlift Wing

“I never thought that I couldn't do anything,” said Tech. Sgt. Petra Chesanek.

Thinking back to her childhood, Chesanek, an aeromedical technician with the 103rd Medical Group, Connecticut Air National Guard, recalled the confidence that she had always felt while growing up with her sisters.

“I have three sisters and we're kind of all tomboys, in a sense,” said Chesanek. “I wasn't brought up in the bubble of ‘Oh no, you're a female. You can't do that.’ No, it was ‘go mow the lawn, go take out the trash, go help dad out with the car.’ We were doing stuff that boys probably would have, if I had a brother, but we're all girls.”

“You can be whatever you want to be.”

As a teenager, Chesanek’s confidence and willingness to serve her community unexpectedly led her to volunteer with the Simsbury Fire Department in 2004.

“I wanted to volunteer so I was thinking soup kitchens and things of that nature,” said Chesanek. “I ended up running into a friend who was a dispatcher when I was in high school. He was working for Simsbury Fire Department and told me to fill out an application to volunteer. I wasn't thinking that I wanted to be a firefighter. I just happened to want to volunteer and that was the opportunity that was presented to me.”

After volunteering with the department for three years, Chesanek became a certified firefighter in 2007.

Her desire to serve her community and an interest in airplanes led her to enlist in the Connecticut Air National Guard in 2011. The Guard, with its one weekend a month, two weeks a year service obligation, would give Chesanek the opportunity to pursue careers with the military and the fire department at the same time. While working as a part-time volunteer for the fire department, her goal was to become a full-time career firefighter.

“Usually if you want to be a firefighter, you have to have an EMT background,” said Chesanek. “So I figured that the Guard would help set me up for success with getting a career position with the fire department -- having the service behind me, a lot of education and training behind me, as well as the skills that the Air Force is able to provide you.”

In 2015, after several years of training and a competitive selection process, Chesanek, finally became a career firefighter with the New Britain Fire Department. Chesanek’s hiring was notable, as only two women had served in the department since it was established in 1833. Seven years later, Chesanek and Lauren Burns would make history by becoming the department’s first female firefighters promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, women represent less than 12 percent of all firefighters in the U.S. Firefighting can be mentally and physically challenging, said Chesanek. As one of the few female firefighters serving in New Britain Fire Department, she expects to be held to the same professional standards as her male counterparts.

“If you want something, at some point you're going to get pushed into a corner and you have to realize nothing is going to come easy,” said Chesanek. “Just have persistence and keep on going through it, if it’s something that you want. It took me seven years to get hired in New Britain. A phrase that I live by is ‘persistence as a way of life.’ So just keep on pushing, and you'll get there.”