Dejah Woods, 24, is the first Black female firefighter in the history of DeLand, according to city records.
With her recent hiring, Woods becomes the third woman — and the third Black person — in the current ranks. The department has 53 total employees, 49 of those in uniform.
Woods, a native of Daytona Beach, was inspired by the camaraderie she saw at the DeLand Fire Department.
“The guys welcomed me with open arms — they don’t treat me any different than they would anybody,” Woods said. “They want to welcome you and make you feel like family, no matter what it is and no matter who you are.”
Woods was among top applicants for the job in the physical aspect, as well as through two different interview panels, DeLand Fire Chief Todd Allen said.
“It’s a challenging process to get into the Fire Department for anyone, and Dejah rose to the top of the list with us,” Allen said.
Part of getting to the point where a Black woman can be a firefighter is all about perception, Woods and Allen said.
“I think a lot of young girls, they don’t get somebody telling them that this is something that they can do … They will say, oh girls can do this, oh girls can do that,” Woods said. “Most of the time, they don’t say, oh, hey, you can be a fireman. Nobody ever told me that growing up. This is just something I came across and figured out that I love.”
“I grew up … I played with all the little firefighter toys, and they’re all male. This has been a profession that has been highly dominated by white males, and we see those barriers breaking,” Allen said.
Even DeLand Fire Station 81, constructed in 1973, was built with the assumption that women would not serve. The outdated structure — which is set to be replaced by a parking lot once the new fire station at the northwest corner of South Clara and West Howry avenues is completed this year — had only one large open room for communal showers, something that had to be modified as women joined the ranks (a bathroom in an administrative office was converted).
With the amount of calls that are entirely for medical reasons — some 77 percent of all calls for service to the Fire Department are medical in nature — having staff that reflect the community is very important, Allen said.
“With the personal interaction on the medical calls, we want to be able to meet people where they’re at, the ill, the afflicted, the people that are traumatized. It’s our job: We arrived there, and it’s our job to make sure that they feel comfortable, that we can treat them effectively,” Allen said. “It’s imperative that we have faces in our department that reflect the community.”
Nationwide, women make up only 4 percent of all career firefighters, and Black people only 8 percent of all firefighters.
“If I can be that person so that little girls know that there is a possibility that you could be wearing this suit too, that is definitely something I want to do,” Woods said.