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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: From Beach Rescue to Boca Grande, Sarah Cislo, firefighter

June 20, 2024
By Sheila Evans

Sarah Cislo grew up with sisters, but she seems to have a good handle on working in what is usually a “man’s world.” Sarah is one of two new firefighters at the Boca Grande Fire Department. She is the first woman to work as a regular member of the firefighter/EMT crew … and she’s loving it. 

“Having women in the fire service is generally a new concept,” she noted. “Police, fire, EMS – all of that stuff has mostly been looked upon as a male profession, and rightfully so. It’s very tough for both law enforcement and fire fighting. They are very physical jobs, and you see a lot of stuff that humans aren’t meant to see. That makes an impact on you, personally, so if you’re not – man or woman – mentally strong or physically strong enough to handle that kind of stuff, this line of work doesn’t really coincide with the genteel lifestyle.”

Sarah (her last name is pronounced sis-low) is decidedly strong, both mentally and physically. She has played competitive sports of all sorts since she was seven or eight years old. She likes working out. She is almost six feet tall, and she knows how to give and take a joke.

She was not too surprised to discover that she would be joining an all male team when she put her sights on Boca Grande’s department. Since it is a small department and there is so little turnover in personnel, it is not surprising that men predominate.

“I was the only girl on the beach patrol for four and a half years,” she said. “I was the only girl in my fire academy class for the whole six months we were in it.” 

There has been no issue about accepting her as an equal, since she was the class leader at Fire School and was a member of the otherwise all male Beach Patrol Squad for the Sarasota Fire Department. “Those guys are really hillarious. They crack me up all the time,” she said.

She is glad there are a couple of women on the Boca Grande station’s staff, though, just to get a break from time to time. 

Her fellow firefighters have pretty much decided rough language and childish jokes do not put her off. She can give as well as she gets. Still there is a bit of refinement she brings to the crew. She wears a small pearl necklace with her firefighter tee shirt. She loves to cook, especially for other people. She laughs easily and enjoys a good chat.

She explained that everyone has a hand in the cooking and other menial jobs.

“I am what they call a ‘proby,’ a probationary firefighter. I have my whole first year to learn the department, learn all of our stuff; to prove myself, that I can be a firefighter here. So, that basically means I get to do what everybody else doesn’t want to do. They get to push it off on me: ‘Hey, we got a proby to do that.’ So I do a lot of the shopping and the cooking, but I don’t mind ‘cause I love to cook.”

Sometimes one of the guys will jump in and want to make something he knows how to prepare, or someone will have a special dish he wants to try. As long as the group can come to a decision about what they will eat, Sarah does not mind pulling it together.

“I’ve only been here about 20-some days,” she said, “but that means we have worked six or seven shifts together. When you spend 24 hours with each other, you kind of get to know one another better quickly. It kind of speeds up that familiarity process,” she said. 

Sarah has been a Floridian for six years. She moved here from the Metropolitan Detroit area, from a little town called Woodhaven. She was attending community college, focused on becoming a nurse  and living at home with her family when her parents decided the family was moving to Florida to be closer to her father’s parents. 

At first she objected to the move, but today she feels it is the best decision of her life so far. 

“Look at me now, right!?”

The nursing career was not feeling like a good fit. She had tried working in a hospital to get some experience behind her. 

“I really hated it,” she said. “I was like, I can’t be cooped up inside for 12 hours at a time. I can’t do it.”

In Michigan she had been a lifeguard and figured that would be a good job in Florida, too. She became part of the Beach Patrol in Sarasota. She tried to do nursing classes and clinics while she was also doing the lifeguarding, but the nursing program insisted she had to devote all her time to nursing. She ended up devoting all her time to lifeguarding, instead. 

She does not regret that decision. 

“When I went to EMT school, I went with a bunch of my coworkers,” she said, “and I still held that job through fire school, working part time there, since it was tough to do full time fire school and full time work at the same time. After that I stayed on the Beach Patrol until about one day before I started this job. I had a one-day buffer, because it was Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge beach holiday, so I was busy all weekend. Then I had one day off, and then came here to work at this job.”

She does not mind admitting that she is “a brand new, baby fire fighter. I got this job on the 31st of May (this year), so I’m brand-brand new. I graduated from the fire academy in December. So this is my first strictly firefighting job.”

“I actually went to the open house at the Englewood Fire Department and I remember standing there with my mom and I was like just joking with her I said, ‘What if I became a firefighter?’ and she was like, ‘Do it!’ And that’s how it happened.”

She went on: “So, once I left nursing, I was kind of spinning my wheels, and that’s when I fully committed to going to EMT school and fire school and then getting onto a department. It was a change of course, but a better one for me, I think.”

With her sports background, Sarah had contemplated becoming a doctor of physical therapy or doing athletic training as a career. 

“I was best friends with my physical therapist for my sprained knees, sprained ankles, my bad hips, all that stuff,” she said.

Most of her life she has played soccer, even playing it in college for a year. She also was a swimmer. All through high school and middle school she did competitive swimming. She played basketball for her church; played softball for a league; ran track, ran cross country.

“I did anything I could, basically,” she said. “I tried just about every sport that our school offered. I played travel soccer year ‘round. When I got into high school I did half travel and half high school competitions. And then I just did competitive swimming for my school district. I was very active as a kid.” She is now recognizing how much her parents sacrificed for her. She is grateful for all the time, energy and resources they spent encouraging her to be an accomplished athlete.  

Most of  that physical activity is now funneled into her work at the Boca Grande Fire Department. 

“I love firefighting because, like the beach patrol, every day is going to be different. You have a general idea of what’s going to happen; you have your normal station duties and stuff you have to do every single day. I know that’s going to be the constant. But you never know what the shift’s going to bring. Maybe you’re going to get a fire; you’re going to get a car accident. You always gotta be ready for anything. And I also like the physical aspect of it. I’ve played sports my entire life … so I like working out and I like being physical. I don’t like sitting behind a desk and doing all that stuff. So, that’s also what drew me to this career.”

What drew her to the Boca Grande department was even deeper.

“I like the feel of a smaller department; more community based, rather than someplace huge, where you just become a number. Here, people come to the station. You get to meet and talk with people.”

She said everyone expected her to apply to the Sarasota County Fire Department when she finished fire school, since she had been working with them so long on the Beach Patrol.

“That’s what I thought too,” she admitted. “But then I went to the fire academy and I talked to people from Englewood, Charlotte County, North Port, Venice. Then District Chief (Lee) Cooper, himself, was one of our instructors for all of our live burns at the academy. I knew about Boca at the time. I knew it was a nice department. Then I saw him walk in with his Boca Grande Fire Department gear on, and it was, ‘That’s the man I gotta impress.’ I was class leader of my class, so I hoped that would make me stand out – other than that I was a girl, the only girl there, but I wanted him to be impressed with my ability. I remember talking to him a lot and trying to impress him and do all the right stuff.” 

She held out, even though other departments were interested in her joining their teams. She is “ecstatic” that the waiting and the work paid off.

Sarah believes her inexperience may have been a positive factor in her getting selected by Boca Grande. She was straight out of school, and had no bad habits developed on the job yet. The Chief and lieutenants can mold her into their ideal firefighter/EMT. 

The station scheduling allows for a significant amount of down time. Sarah has great plans on how to spend that time. Now that she is not lifeguarding, she can go to the beach and relax, not worrying about all the other people in the water or on the sand. Her younger sister used to work at the Pink Elephant and would talk about the island a lot, but Sarah had never spent much time on the island. 

On the other hand, she loves fishing, and even has her own boat: a 17 foot Carolina Skiff.

“It’s a perfect little boat. Not a lot of hull space on it, but we can make it work,” she said. The “we” she refers to is herself and boyfriend Mark, a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. 

“He works on Siesta Key currently,” she said. “That’s where we met. A cop and a firefighter, who would have thought!” 

Returning to the subject of her very active lifestyle, Sarah said, “I love to fish. I love the ocean. I love sitting on sand bars, swimming, paddle boarding, all that kind of stuff. I go to the gym and work out, but mainly I’m gonna be on the water just about every weekend,” she said. 

“We’re not like sport fishermen. We do it for the fun of it. It’s still one of my favorite things to do. Which is another great reason for working out here, getting all this fishing advice from all these guys.” 

She and Mark recently added a cat to their family. 

“His name is Mahi. He’s not even a year old,” she said. “We just got him. He’s very sweet…and crazy.”

Sarah wants people in Boca Grande to know she is “super friendly.” 

“I like talking to people, so if anybody wants to see a woman firefighter and wants to talk about anything … if they want to bring young kids around, young girls or boys … I am open to questions about fire service, EMT school, how it is to get here. Just come by the station. We’re here all the time, 24/7. I’m on the C shift, so I work every 3 days. If anyone wants to come talk, look at the trucks, bring their kids, we’re here, we’re open. I love to talk about being a firefighter. It’s a great job. It’s a great career.