By Sgt. Sidnie SmithJune 18, 2019
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- "You're doing great," Capt. Mike Milar, a captain with the Fort Carson Fire Department called to the fire fighter loading the hose on her shoulder. "Keep it up!"
Christina Rivera grunted as she adjusted the weight of the hose on her shoulder. She began to moving forward with the apparatus, letting the hose trail behind her like she was shown, her protective gear adding an additional 50 pounds of weight to her small frame. After about a 100 feet, Rivera had the hose fully unraveled.
"Alright, do it again," Milar said. She turned and began winding the hose up carefully, ready to do the training exercise again and again.
The Fort Carson Fire Department is rife with first-responders who made the leap from serving their country in the various uniforms of the armed forces to serving their community.
Rivera is one of many.
Standing at 5 feet, 3 inches tall, a soft-spoken, dark haired woman with a shy smile, Rivera is not what comes to mind when many people think of a firefighter.
Her determination to be a fire fighter and emergency medical technician is not soft at all, but blazes as bright as the fires she's trained to put out.
By her demeanor alone, it's not too far of a stretch to imagine the former U.S. Army automated logistic specialist sitting behind a desk, memorizing serial numbers and inputting information into a spreadsheet.
Many would question the sanity of a person who would trade a desk job in the Army to run into a raging inferno without a moment of hesitation, risking his own safety and possibly his life for a complete stranger.
The journey into firefighting was not what Rivera had initially planned for herself.
Originally from Orlando, Florida, she said from a young age she always wanted to be a police officer and by the time she was in high school, she was certain that was going to be what she did with her life.
Upon graduating, she enrolled in criminal justice classes at Miami Dade College. It was while she was in college that a professor told her a military background would help her get hired by police departments.
"My father was in the Coast Guard, and my uncle was retired Navy, but I wasn't a military brat," Rivera said. "I went with the Army, because it had the fastest ship date, and I was told police departments really didn't care what your military job was - just that you were in the service."
In 2013, Rivera enlisted in the Army. After attending basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and advanced individual training at Fort Lee, Virginia, she reported to her first duty station, Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington, where she got a very quick introduction into Army life.
She hadn't even begun to settle into her unit or her new life as a Soldier when she was told her unit would be deploying in three months.
Rivera celebrated her 21st birthday at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan.
"I grew up very fast," she said. "The Army was character building. Taught me a lot about leadership, a lot about myself and how I am under stress and under pressure, and how I handle all that stuff."
Rivera's ability to handle stress and her attitude and outlook on life would change in a way she never imagined.
One evening in September 2016 while Rivera was walking her dog, she was attacked by a dog that had escaped from its house. Rivera picked up her dog to shield it, causing the other dog to attack her right arm.
Rivera had just received job offers from both the Tacoma and Seattle police departments. The process of accepting a job and attending the police academy came to a screeching halt after the dog attack.
Rivera said that when she was going in and out of consciousness, she was grateful that the fire fighters and paramedics were the first to arrive on the scene.
"You're the first ones on the scene, and you make all the difference within those couple minutes of contact," Rivera said. "I saw how impactful it was and how that career field could change someone's life."
She said she spent almost a year recovering from the incident, constantly thinking about how the paramedics and fire fighters' quick response and actions had helped her - the planting of a seed, a seed that would grow into the determination and passion she has for her profession.
While she lay there recovering from the brutal attack, Rivera decided that helping others in the way the first responders had helped her was something she was called to do.
"I see the difference it makes on the community," she said. "I felt like it was my duty to pay it forward."
When she left the military in 2017, Rivera returned to Orlando and enrolled in a fire academy. The training was local, but Rivera applied to fire departments around the country. She applied and was offered a position with the Fort Carson Fire Department.
Milar, a 13-year veteran with the Fort Carson Fire Department, knows that a new fire fighter comes with many challenges. Being a part of a new team with an established work flow and rapport can be intimidating, he said.
"She's building trust and developing relationships," Milar said. "Everyone comments on her great attitude."
Many of Rivera's traits and actions are left over from her days in the Army. Her attention is evident when she makes sure computer keyboards are wiped down and small overlooked items are cleaned. They are things that may seem insignificant but are noticed by those around her, Milar said.
A typical day on shift for Rivera working for the FCFD has a routine: she comes in, gets her gear ready, receives a shift change brief, replaces medical supplies used by the previous shift, finds out what equipment needs cleaning, conducts training, runs errands, and goes to the gym.
In the evenings, the fire fighters make dinner together and eat like a family, she said. She then works on online courses or reads books or medical-related articles to help her increase her knowledge.
On her own time, she practices drills with her mask to help with her muscle memory.
"She's quiet, but has a lot of humility," Milar said.
The high standards of other both the Army and the Department of Emergency Services were what Rivera expected, and her drive and motivation make her strive to exceed those high standards.
"I feel more confident in myself and my team that if things go south, I am way better off with the training I've received here at Fort Carson," she said.
As a former Soldier, Rivera can relate to the community she serves. Rivera knows that being in the Army and being deployed is hard on both Soldiers and Families. She recalled going to a call for a woman whose husband was deployed. She had three small children, and one was sick with a high fever.
"You could tell she had her hands full and was stressed out and just didn't know what to do," she said.
Rivera and the others on the crew not only did their job of helping the sick child, but helped get the other children dressed in coats and shoes to help the woman.
"You really notice the impact that you are having, and you really see the Families you are serving," Rivera said. "The Soldiers are serving, and we are serving the Families. It's just one big circle."
Rivera's favorite part of being in the Army was how honorable it made her feel knowing she represented something bigger then herself. She said she now feels that same pride as she wears her uniform for the Fort Carson Fire Department.
"I always knew I was meant to be in uniform," she said. "It started in high school with the wrestling team, then with the Army, and now with the fire department."