Q&A with Three NYC Firefighters

Meet the cover stars of our Red, Hot & Blue issue!
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This month, we hung out with some awesome New York City firefighters for our Cooking with Fire cover story. Meet the three firefighters who graced our cover, and learn why they love doing what they do. 

Annette Astaiza

Annette Astaiza

Rachael Ray Every Day: Why did you become a firefighter?

Annette Astaiza: It was just in me. Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to help people. One day, when I was in high school, I was walking around with my friends down the street, and I heard sirens and just saw the engine go through, and I was like, “Wow, I would love to be a first responder.”

What’s your favorite part of the job? 

Being nozzle. They call me the nozzle queen. There’s different positions you can have in the engine like nozzle, backup, control, but I always try to get the nozzle. I put the fire out—that’s me!

What surprised you most about the job?

I knew you’re there to fight fires, but I didn’t know that you actually go inside a burning building and that there was flames everywhere. I just thought you attacked from the outside and then you go in. But we actually go in there, and there’s chances that you may not come out. I had an incident not too long ago where I went into a fire, and I didn’t think I was going to make it back home. One of my friends collapsed on the staircase, and I didn’t think he made it. It was a horrible feeling. I went home for the weekend and just cried. I was like “Oh my God, if I would have lost one of the guys I work with, it definitely would have affected by entire life.” So I think that was… it made me see this whole job different and just respect.

What's been challenging about being a firefighter?

I'm the first woman in my firehouse. They'd never had a woman there. The beginning was difficult, but I'm happy because it could have been worse. When I first got to the firehouse, they had a bathroom for me, and the whole bathroom was pink. They fixed it up for me, so I thought that was cute. Just like everything else, you just have to get used to people. I'm just happy they gave me the opportunity. Now, we're one big happy family, and we have another woman, too!

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned as a firefighter?

I appreciate life more. I feel like people take a lot of things for granted. Working this job, I see so many things that I’m like, I’m lucky to be on this job, and I’m just lucky in general. It makes you see everything totally differently. I go home to my kids, and I appreciate them. I appreciate the fact that I was able to finish my tour and go home. There were other firefighters who weren’t able to do that, so I appreciate that.

Ronald Shen

Ronald Shen

Rachael Ray Every Day: Why did you become a firefighter?

Ronald Shen: After getting out of the Navy, there was a part of me that felt unfulfilled. I still felt the need to serve. My mom is one of the most selfless people out there—she’ll go out of her way to help anyone anywhere. Serving people is something I was brought up on. So when I was looking for employment, exploring my options, I met a Reservist who was a firefighter, and when he told me about the job, it just stuck with me.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

The camaraderie in the firehouse is like no other. Everyone—in the whole department, all firefighters—you always know they got your back. You’re never going in alone. No firefighter ever puts out a fire by himself. We all share the burden of doing the work and getting it done.

Was there anything that surprised you about the job, anything you didn’t expect?

We do a lot more than just firefighting. When you think about firefighters, you think “All I’m doing is running into burning buildings and rescuing people.” But in actuality, that’s pretty much your main job, but there’s so many other—because we handle all other emergencies throughout the city, from car accidents to gas leaks. I wasn’t expecting all those other emergencies would fall under firefighter. We have a very broad range of job duties. 

How did you become Mr. August for the 2019 firefighter calendar?

One of my fireman buddies was going for it. He told me about it and said, “Why don’t you come do it with me.” So I’m like, “All right. Sure. Why not?” So we started working out, dieting, trying to get back in shape again. Then the day of the audition—you go in and they take a few photos of you doing poses without a shirt—I called him and said, “Where are you? Are you coming?” He goes, “Nah. I don’t feel ready for it, so I’m not going.” So I’m there by myself. It was my first time doing a photo shoot. I was so nervous. But I got very lucky and they chose me!

I actually didn’t tell anyone about it. I’ve always been kind of a quiet type of guy. I never really put myself out there. So none of the guys in the firehouse knew. But the night before the calendar launched, it went up online so you could see all the people chosen, and somehow a guy at the firehouse saw my picture, and he showed it to everyone at the firehouse that night. And my phone just blew up with text messages and lots of jokes. Firemen love joking around! So they were busting my chops for quite a while.

Jason Powell

Jason Powell

Rachael Ray Every Day: Why did you become a firefighter?

Jason Powell: When my father passed away, everyone that spoke at his funeral had stories of things he did to help them—things I didn’t know about, things no one knew about besides that person. All the things people said made him sound like a man who touched peoples’ lives in selfless ways. I was working for Nine West (shoe store) at the time, and I felt like I wasn’t helping anybody. I’m sure someone had a shoe emergency I helped them through, but aside from that, I wasn’t really doing anything. I wanted to be able to say that at my job, all I do is help people.

So in 2013, I watched a documentary about the 9/11 dispatchers. At one point, they played the transmission of a captain who called and said, “We’re on the 52nd floor, and we’re still going up.” I have to assume he knew they probably weren’t going to make it out, but they were still trying to make a path for people who were above them. Hearing that, knowing that he spent his last hours trying to help people—it’s the height of bravery for me. That’s what inspired me to become a firefighter.

What’s it like spending 24 hours with the same people?

In the Academy, when we’re training, there’s a quote: “The best times in the firehouse are at the kitchen table.” I thought it was a joke. But it’s not. At the kitchen table is when there’s no rank. Everybody in the firehouse contributes to making the meal. When we’re out on a call, there’s seniority—the journeyman does certain things, the journeywoman does certain things. But when we’re making the meal, everybody contributes. Everyone participates. And it feels like a family. It sounds cliché, but it really feels like that.

Your signature dish is steak gorgonzola alfredo with linguini. Very fancy! Did you cook a lot before becoming a firefighter?

I did not. The senior man in my firehouse, the first week I met him, my third day on the job, he asked me if I was dating someone. I said I wasn’t. He said, “I want to give you a suggestion. For the first five years, don’t get fat and don’t get married.” I said “Why?” He said, “Because after five years, you’ll be at top pay, and you’ll be a world-class chef, and then you’ll be able to have your choice.” And I’m like, “I don’t know about that.” He said, “After two years in the firehouse, you’re going to be excellent and (putting things together), cleaning, and cooking because the firehouse is so diverse in terms of ethnicity that you’re going to learn dishes from all ethnicities, and you’ll learn how to make them from scratch because they’re always made from scratch.” And he’s right.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned as a firefighter?

You know the saying “You never know the battles people are facing?” If someone has a stove fire, that’s not a huge thing for us. We smother the fire, we don’t even use water. But for them, it was an emergency. We have to respond to everything as if it’s the most important thing. If they’re calling us for an emergency, then it’s serious. 

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