This story appeared in February 2022.
It’s a family affair for Shelter Island’s newest Fire Department recruit.
Alexis Heaney, 25, isn’t the first woman to join the Shelter Island Fire Department, but it’s been a lot of years since women served the department as firefighters.
Ms. Heaney knew the demands the job would bring. Her father is Fire Commissioner Greg Sulahian, a former chief, and her husband, Timothy Heaney, is an Orient Fire Department member. They are Island residents now, but when they lived in Orient, Mr. Heaney was a member of the Fire Department and has kept his membership there.
“He was excited,” she said about her husband’s response to her becoming a firefighter.
Mr. Sulahian said he was pleased that one of his children decided to follow in his footsteps. In their growing-up years, he thought his son Adrian might become a firefighter. But Adrian joined the forest service out west. Mr. Sulahian speculated that Adrian may yet join a fire department.
“I am so proud of both of them,” he added. “It’s awesome to see a new generation who will bring a fresh outlook to the job.”
As for Ms. Heaney, she’s watched her husband and father respond to calls, and at the end of long work days, travel up-Island to attend required training sessions, so she certainly knows what it’s going to take to make the grade. As older firefighters have pointed out, many joined when training was done on the job.
Today, volunteers attend long hours of training similar to what paid firefighters must undergo at fire academies.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a few years,” Ms. Heaney said about joining the department. But with three young children, a husband already answering fire calls, and knowing the required hours of training, the timing hadn’t been right, she said.
Now that she has children in school during the day — the Heaney children are 8, 6 and 2 — she can manage the time to answer calls and undergo training requirements.
Former Fire Commissioner and ongoing Fire Department member Larry Lechmanski recalled how different training was when he joined in 1976. Instead of having two years to complete training, he had about nine hours of training and the rest was learning the ropes on the job.
Knowing what recruits have to do today, he admitted he might not have joined when he was in his 20s if he had to do what is expected of new members now. In his day, you learned “by screwing up, being yelled at and eventually finding out how to do things correctly.”
He said he admired Ms. Heaney’s view that she isn’t out to prove anything, but is simply drawn to the experience and is approaching the work with enthusiasm.
“She’s got the guts to do it,” Mr. Lechmanski said about Ms. Heaney. He recalled the pride he felt when his son announced he wanted to keep the family legacy with the department going.
Ms. Heaney pledged to answer as many fire calls as possible, and has already responded to three.
Her membership has been well received by her male counterparts in the department. She described them as “super supportive. They seem to be rooting for me.”
Her father pointed out that some of the younger department members went to school with Alexis, so there’s a natural friendship there.
As for what Ms. Heaney does in her spare time, she laughed. There’s not much free time, she said.
But when the family can find time, they like going into New York City to visit various sites. In the last few months, that included a visit to Ellis Island. Such trips expand knowledge for her young children and provide the couple with the family activities both enjoy, she said.
Ms. Heaney volunteering to be an Island firefighter is “great for the department and a great thing for the community,” Chief Anthony Reiter said. He added that he hopes other women will be encouraged to follow her lead.
“It’s not just a man’s world,” the chief said, noting that department members are supportive and encouraging of Ms. Heaney. “It’s good to have diversity. I’m proud of her.”