KIMBLES - When Michelle Manzione learned that her local fire company was in need of firefighters, she figured completing a couple of courses would teach her how to extinguish fires. Already a social member at the Forest Volunteer Fire Company, Manzione says she quickly learned that she was ignorant to what firefighters actually do. The training however, quickly made her wake up; as she attended the first class with a notebook and pen, ready to learn how to direct traffic. Instead, Manzione started by cutting apart cars in a vehicle rescue class, which she says she loved. Smashing the windows, she says was, “fun.”

Considering the EMT course, Manzione’s mom, Barbara questioned whether she could handle blood. Manzione says blood in general doesn’t scare her, its seeing her own blood that’s an issue. So, for three nights a week, Manzione traveled to Scranton for EMT training where she eventually completed close to 100 hours of instructions and passed a test. It was a challenge though, because she didn’t have any medical background and there was a lot to learn. Now that she’s a certified EMT, Manzione says it’s disappointing that she doesn’t have a lot of time to go on the rides.

Although a certified EMT, Manzione still couldn’t drive an ambulance, so she decided to complete the emergency vehicle operators course (EVOC) since she had the other credentials.

Prior to the EVOC training, Manzione had never driven anything larger than an SUV. Having humor throughout the training, Manzione says, the instructors were fantastic because they were all patient with her. With the help of a friend, she practiced driving through cones since she would have to go backwards, through an alleyway and parallel park the ambulance to pass the test. During the EVOC lesson, when the instructor was talking about parallel parking, a little inquisitive, Manzione questioned why anyone would parallel park an ambulance. The instructor explained that the point of parallel parking an ambulance, is to see the placement of the vehicle and how the driver can navigate the vehicle to fit into tight areas. 

To pass the EVOC training, Manzione had to complete seven skill stations with the ambulance. She did, perfectly, not hitting a cone. Except, after finishing the course, Manzione was told to turn the vehicle around and then she hit a cone. That mistake, she says, was the joke of that class. Now qualified to drive any emergency vehicle, Manzione has asked Forest Volunteer Fire Department Chief Wayne Rosengrants when she can drive a fire truck. At this time, the chief says she needs to start out on a small truck.

Now a certified EMT, qualified to drive emergency vehicles and trained to fight exterior fires, Manzione felt like something was yet again, missing because she hadn’t completed the essentials needed to fight interior fires. To do the essentials, Manzione had to complete 188 hours, which she says didn’t seem like much on paper. Again, more night classes running nearly four years long where there was discussions about fire support and all that the firemen do to extinguish the blazes. A bit more in-depth, Manzione learned how heavy ladders really are, receiving help inside a building hose line advancement and much more. 

Interior was the most fun, Manzione says, because she was able to force entry and she had to actually extinguish a structure fire. These lessons were interesting, she says, because everything was controlled and she learned about thermal layers and how fire interacts with air when doors are opened. Practicing interior firefighting now, Manzione was using air, which didn’t turn out too well at first. She explains with a laugh, that although she is not claustrophobic, she was breathing so fast that she went through an entire cylinder of air in 15 minutes. The air is supposed to last a half hour. Fortunately, an instructor gave Manzione some tips to control her breathing.

After many hours of training and tests, overall Manzione has become a certified EMT, exterior and interior firefighter in the state of Pennsylvania and she went on to complete the training to become nationally certified. Despite the time it has taken her and a patch she received to represent her accomplishment, Manzione says it still hasn’t fully sunk in that she’s a real firewoman quite yet. She has gone on a few rides, but there aren't an abundance in the area and so there hasn’t been any major fires. 

Every element of the training presented challenges for Manzione, but without question, she says the essentials were the hardest, because it was either pass or fail. Although she passed, tests for parts like the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) was trying because she had to put the apparatus on in a minute. Her own biggest critic, during test time Manzione put all of the equipment on, but she missed her hair and so she failed the station. Initially, Manzione‘s time was 1.05, but with a tip she was able to put the apparatus on in 35 seconds.

Other stations included a confinement maze which she compares to a rat maze where participants crawl around on their hands and knees feeling the walls. Manzione calls this station, “really cool,” because as the person crawls, they go up something that is similar to a see-saw. Additional stations included carrying a charged hose up a ladder to a window and putting two pieces of wood together to stop a sprinkler.

There are currently three female volunteers in the Forest Volunteer Fire Company and Manzione happens to be the only female who can do interior firefighting. The other two are too young at this point, and being in such a position, she says is humbling.

Throughout it all, when she was forced to push herself physically, mentally and emotionally, Manzione says everyone has been fantastic, because there were times when she questioned whether she could do it. But, members of the department who she considers family helped reassure her and give her the confidence she needed to continue on.

Manzione’s brother, father and mother are also involved in the department. Only two years younger than her brother, Manzione has always competed with her brother and as she completed the different requirements, each time she considered where he was at, which helped to motivate her to continue on. Her mom, Barbara beams when she talks about her daughter.

Currently a substitute teacher at Wallenpaupack North Primary School, Manzione has recently secured a long term spot in the school where she teaches autistic support. Growing up, as she saw others with special needs picked on, Manzione says she decided she wanted to help the students who had trouble standing up for themselves.

Having come this far, although there are still courses she can take, Manzione says she hopes that with what she has accomplished it shows people that both men and women can become volunteers because all fire departments are in need of help. Especially though, she says women should volunteer because there is a misconception that firefighting is a man’s profession. She acknowledges that predominantly is it, “but it doesn’t have to be.” She adds that aside from it being fun, if other departments are anything like Forest, they are well aware of the brotherhood and sisterhood that exists in the company to where everyone is like a family.

Manzione’s determination and heart, Rosengrants says is what helped her achieve her certification. He says knowing Manzione as a member of the department for five years, he is confident in her skills and when the emergency arises he’s certain she can handle it.

Forest Volunteer Fire Department (Company 81) is located in Kimbles, Lackawaxen Township.