The firefighters on Engine 6 drove through downtown Portland and greeted a family and their young daughter as the truck approached a stop sign on Congress Street.
Aboard Engine 6 was Angela Calvo, who at the time, in 2016, was the Fire Department’s first female lieutenant.
“The little girl looked up and she saw that it’s not a fireman that she’s looking at, but a firewoman,” Calvo recalled recently. “It’s an incredible feeling.”
Four years later, Calvo is again breaking barriers. She is the first woman promoted to division chief of Emergency Medical Services and Training – and the first woman to hold a chief officer rank in the department’s 252-year history.
“I’m not one for attention, I was really hoping to keep it low key,” she said of the announcement. “I understand the importance of it, but I never want to take away from the importance of the other women and girls that want to do this for a career.”
But statistically, it is a big deal.
According to Data USA, 95.8 percent of U.S. firefighters are male. Portland mirrors the national data; Calvo works with 213 other people in the Fire Department, she said, and only nine are women.
In her 20 years of experience, Calvo said, her colleagues’ reaction to her, as a woman in a male-dominated field, has been mostly positive and supportive. But she admits that along the way there were some men who weren’t happy she was around.
“All it does for women like me is more incentive to prove them wrong,” she said of the negative behavior. “I accept it and I use it, and you can look at it in different ways. You can hear something negative and it can demotivate you and ruin your career, or you can use it as a motivator.”
So that’s what Calvo did. She said it motivated her to become the best version of herself, pushing her to achieve the title that she now holds through hard work and years of schooling.
Originally from Lyman, Calvo attended Massabesic High School until 10th grade, when she transferred to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. It was there that she took an EMS class to see if she had an interest, but it wasn’t until her freshman year at the University of New England in Biddeford when she realized she wanted to be a paramedic.
She enrolled in New Hampshire Technical School, where she completed her EMS degree and sought a job in Portland because of the city’s high call volume.
“If you want to be a good paramedic, you have to be busy,” Calvo said. “That’s how I ended up in Portland.”
Being a paramedic is challenging, she said.
“We did 24-hour shifts. It’s hard on you mentally and physically and takes a lot of strength to do it for many years,” Calvo said. “But, it gives you opportunity – I was able to pursue my education because of my schedule.”
Calvo earned a master’s degree in business administration in 2009 from Thomas College, studying during the hours she wasn’t working as a paramedic.
Now, as division chief of EMS and training, she is no longer answering ambulance calls or riding firetrucks as a firefighter, which she did for three years.
“I spent so much time on an ambulance and I wanted to expand my skill set,” she said. “I wanted to be well rounded in all aspects of the department.”
That desire paid off last September when Calvo was named interim division chief of EMS and training. Last month, when she was promoted to the permanent position, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau called her a “valuable addition” to the department’s leadership team.
“She has earned the respect of her peers through dedication, hard work, education, and commitment to our overall success and mission,” Gautreau said in a statement. “I’m proud of how well she led us during her interim role, and thankful she has agreed to assume the duties in a full-time capacity.”
Missing the street
Calvo, who oversees 75 percent of all emergency responses by the Portland Fire Department, said there is no “normal day” on the job. Meetings, grant work, and training other firefighters and paramedics consume most of her time.
But she misses going out on calls.
“I miss it a lot,” she said. “I miss working with team members and the other department members. … I am very proud to be a paramedic and firefighter, and with that, any of us that becomes a chief miss going out on the street – it becomes a part of who you are.”
The number of women in the Portland Fire Department hasn’t changed in the 20 years Calvo has been a part of it. But with the roles Calvo has held, she hopes other women will see there are opportunities for them in the future.
That includes her 9-year-old daughter, Emma.
“She is going to grow up with the ability to do whatever she wants,” Calvo said.
Freelance writer Emily Duggan lives in Portland.