June 16–Natalie Hernandez watched firefighters respond to a car accident that split the female driver’s head open — and thought it was the coolest thing.

Her father, now Miami Fire Rescue Battalion Chief William Hernandez, had brought her along to see what life was like as a firefighter. She was about 13.

“I’ll never forget. I told her to stay in the truck and not get out, but she got out anyway and it was like, nothing,” her father said. “She’s got the firefighter fever.”

Today, Natalie Hernandez, 23, is a three-year veteran at Miami Fire Rescue’s Station 2 off Northwest 27th Avenue. Although her dad is at Station 1, they respond to a lot of calls together when multiple units are needed.

“From the atmosphere at the station, to the brotherhood, to the calls and the stories, it interested me,” Natalie said. “I saw that lifestyle, and I wanted it.”

She gestured around the station: “And here I am.”

While dad pinned the badge on her when she became a firefighter, her stepmother, Nora Hernandez, a captain in Miami Fire Rescue, has also played a big part in guiding her.

“It’s provided a beautiful life for us. But being a female — once you have a family and become a mom — that’s something I worry about for her,” the captain said. “I have two little ones, and by the time I get home, they’re off to school and I don’t get to see them until 4 o’clock that day. It’s tough for me.”

Added the chief: “It’s tough for a woman, and these two have to keep proving themselves every day.”

Nora, a 20-year veteran, has spent her career proving that women could do the job just as good as — or better than — men. Along the way, she met her husband and they have been together for 15 years.

“She’s been in the best shape ever since she got hired, you can ask anyone,” Natalie said. “It’s tough going through the academy. You kind of need that person to guide you through it.”

New firefighters often will cry their first year out of the academy because station life demands a lot, Chief Hernandez said. When the senior firefighters are done eating, the recruits fight to clean their dishes. Some people crack, he said, and then there are people like Natalie who come in on their day off to learn the equipment in the truck.”

And while firefighters are known for pulling pranks on the recruits — rigging a slingshot in the fridge so that the next person gets slapped with a shot of cold water — the serious side of the business can take its toll. Among the heartaches: firefighters who don’t make it back, leaving behind their loved ones.

“While we have that in the back of our minds,” Natalie said, “we’re also happy for the time we have together.”

The first time it hit the chief that his daughter was a firefighter, he was on his way to her station when a call came in. He arrived at the scene, but her rescue truck was already there, the first to arrive. He watched her jump out with her her gloves on, moving from one patient to the next with like someone who had been doing it for years.

“I looked at her and thought, ‘Damn, that’s my daughter.’ She impressed me that day to see her actually be here, working and actually good at what she does,” he said.

He admitted he didn’t want her to be a firefighter at first, but now he enjoys having her be part of the family business.

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By Brooke Henderson, The Miami Herald

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