As a small child, Sara Shaffer knew she couldn’t ever fill her father’s shoes — but she did want to fill his fireman’s boots.
Following in the footsteps of her father and several other family members, Shaffer began volunteering at a local fire department at age 18 and said she hasn’t looked back since.
The 31-year-old from Chesapeake Beach is the first Prince George’s County firefighter to receive the “National Firefighter of the Year” award through the American Legion veterans’ organization, said Paul Gomez, fire department assistant chief.
“I grew up around it, listening to things my dad said. When I was older I said ‘I can do that too’,” Shaffer said. “I don’t second guess it at all. I love what I do.”
The award, which will be presented during a ceremony in North Carolina on Tuesday, comes months after Shaffer received the county’s Firefighter of the Year award.
“[Receiving the national nomination] was definitely surprising,” she said. “You don’t expect awards or anything because it’s your job and you keep thinking ‘they’ll pick someone else’.”
Gomez said Shaffer’s award helps bring attention to the work of the approximate 800 career firefighters and 1,500 volunteers who work for fire stations across the county
“It’s a tremendous honor for one of our members to receive recognition at such a high level,” he said. “And it’s definitely rewarding to see our members recognized for the work they do every day on the streets of Prince George’s County. It sheds some light on the efforts of everyone who participated in those incidents.”
Shaffer’s county-level title was award in combination with a gold medal of valor for assisting in saving the life of a fellow firefighter who was pinned underneath a truck after a traffic accident last January. Shaffer received her county award alongside paramedic Katie Johnson, who also received a medal of valor and the department’s “paramedic of the year” award. Their award ceremony marked the first time two female members of the department simultaneously received the department’s highest honors, Gomez said.
Johnson, who had has been a member of the county fire department for 11 years, said that she isn’t surprised two women clenched both titles.
“It’s a male-dominated profession, it has been for years and years,” she said. “But I don’t think it should be such a big deal that it was two women [who received the county awards]. I’m a firefighter/paramedic. I don’t want to be labeled as a female firefighter/paramedic.”
Working 24-hour shifts that begin at 7 a.m., Shaffer said gender stereotypes aren’t the first thing on her mind.
“The station gets 30-plus calls a day,” she said. “You put in a lot of hours, which could be challenging. Physically, it can be demanding. But I don’t think it’s ever challenging if you enjoy what you do. It’s all worth it in the end.”