Constance Zappella, one of the first of two women to ever be hired as a Jersey City firefighter in 2003, became the first female fire battalion chief when sworn in on Aug. 10. Zappella, 38, said she loves Jersey City and loves her job.
“I have always loved being a Jersey City fire fighter because I am a hands-on hard worker individual who gives my all to everything I do, whether it be a first responder call or multiple alarm fire,” she said during an interview after her swearing in. “I strive to care for the citizens of Jersey City the same way I would take care of my own family, if I was responding to my own home. The men and women that work on the street with me are the finest and most genuine group of people that you will find in Jersey City. It’s the guys that I work side by side with that are the biggest asset to the Jersey City fire department.”
Although she sees herself as feminine, she is also a staunch fighter when it comes to equal treatment of women, taking the city to task for allegedly overlooking women in the promotional process.
“I have always loved being a Jersey City fire fighter because I am a hands-on hard worker individual who gives my all to everything I do, whether it be a first responder call or multiple alarm fire.” – Constance Zappella
A legal fight for the chance
She also pushed to make certain that facilities housing firefighters took into account the new female recruits, asking the city to develop some level of privacy for men and women working in fire houses. She filed a grievance in 2012 and later a lawsuit in May 2014 to require the city to offer women the same opportunities as men for training and promotions, a suit the city settled for $50,000 this year, just covering her legal expenses.
As part of the settlement, however, she is not allowed to comment on the suit. Currently, she is one of ten women on a fire department that has 500 men.
Unlike in New York, she and the other nine women on the fire department are required to take the same entry level and promotional tests as men. In Jersey City, women do not receive preferential treatment or extra points towards promotion for being female.
“Promotions are given to meet the need of the department’s manpower and applicants are given these promotions in order based on the results of these exams. If you come out number 1, 2, and 3 then the number 1, 2, and 3 people are promoted in that order,” she said. “That works for me.”
She said that regardless of decisions made by the administration affecting the department, she said she is part of a unique family of fire fighters.
“We are a family. That can never be taken away from us,” she said. “Being a female is irrelevant to obtaining the position I have today. I am a battalion chief not because of gender but because of my own hard work and dedication to be successful in my career. This work ethic was instilled in me from an early age by my parents and my Jersey City Public School education. “
Jersey City born and raised
Zappella graduated McNair Academic High School in 1997.
“I believe the best thing that I was taught in this school was to study and work hard,” she said. “I credit McNair and the work ethic I acquired there as a student for having received a full academic scholarship to college.”
In order not to jeopardize her scholarship if the fire department hired her before she graduated, she earned her 54 credits with a double degree in economics and sociology in three years instead of four.
“When I took the fire department test I had no idea that there were no females on the department,” she said. “I never even gave a thought to being the first female or the possibility that there were none on the department. I’m the first one to say that this job isn’t for all females, but it also isn’t for all males.”
As for role models, she said her mother served as a role model for her and her three sisters.
“Our father died of cancer when we were children. And she is probably the only woman in Jersey City who has a daughter who is a public school teacher at Public School 27, Jersey City police officer, and Jersey City fire fighter. My other sister is obtaining her doctorate on full scholarship at the University of Chicago and currently in Italy doing research for a book she is writing. My mother herself is a nurse, graduated from the old medical center nursing program and works at St Mary’s in Hoboken (now Hoboken University Medical Center) as well as the Jersey City clinic on Storms Avenue administering immunizations to low income families. She is my true hero.”
There is something special in the fact that she and her family still live in Jersey City.
“We grew up in a single family household in Jersey City, all went to Jersey City public schools and then onto college, all graduated college, and all still work in Jersey City,” she said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.