Catching Fire

A scheduling fluke and an Instagram post ignited a national conversation about the face of the fire service. Meet the five women who started it all.

Kelsey Krzywada, Sandi Ladewski, Monica Marzullo, Krystyna Krakowski, and Julie Dudley
Photography and Styling by Joriann Maye-Keegan

Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue Department Rescue Lieutenant Krystyna Krakowski eyeballs the bins of medical supplies in the back of her ambulance. It’s a veritable emergency room on wheels. But beyond the equipment is something she says is just as important: compassion for people. “I could be the last face someone sees,” she says. “I’m going to make sure they get what they need from me as a medic. But also, what they need from me as a human being.”

As alarms ring through the station, a dispatcher alerts the team to an emergency at a local long-term care facility. Lights on and sirens blaring, fire medic Julie Dudley guides the ambulance through traffic. On scene, the team races to the patient, with Krakowski calling the shots. They start chest compressions and administer medications. They find a pulse and lose it. They try to determine the man’s medical history (which no one at the facility seems to know) and how long he’s been unresponsive (an aide shrugs and says, “He was fine this morning.”).

On many days, lives are saved on calls like these. But this isn’t one of those days; the patient dies. Krakowski and her team are likely the last faces he saw—and maybe the only people who cared for him at a human level.

Making History

The fire rescue team responding to the long-term care facility is comprised of two women and three men. But on September 18, 2020, the team was a women-only affair: Krakowski and Dudley, plus fire medic Kelsey Krzywada, acting captain Monica Marzullo, and driver engineer Sandi Ladewski.

“It happened by chance,” Palm Beach Gardens Deputy Fire Chief James Ippolito says of the first-ever all-woman shift in the department’s 56-year history. “We were just going through our normal staffing procedures based on qualifications and rank.”

Krystyna Krakowski

Title: Rescue lieutenant

Age: 46

Number of years in the fire service: 17

Best thing about the job: “I love helping people and making a difference. I was attracted to the physical aspect, and how every day is a new challenge. I get to do what I love and be kind to others while I’m doing it.”

Marzullo says that from the get-go she knew the team would garner attention, and she wanted to make sure they were ready for whatever the day brought. “When they hear us go on calls today, it’s going to be all eyes on us,” she told her colleagues at their morning meeting. “Everybody bring your A game.”

After the meeting, the group posed for pictures at Fire Station 65 to commemorate the history-making day. But then, Dudley says, it was business as usual as the team handled the calls that came in from dispatch.

Kelsey Krzywada

Title: Fire medic (recently promoted to rescue lieutenant)

Age: 29

Number of years in the fire service: 5

Best thing about the job: “Every so often we get letters and follow-up calls from someone we’ve helped. It’s cool to know the patient is healed now and that you played a part in that.”

Because the Palm Beach Gardens Fire Department provides both firefighting and emergency medical services, every team member on every shift is a certified firefighter as well as either a certified paramedic or EMT. Ippolito says 85 percent of the calls his crews respond to are medical emergencies. The remaining 15 percent are to structure fires, vehicle fires, brush fires, hazardous materials incidents, car accidents, bomb scares, gas leaks, and other types of public assistance calls.

There were no fires for the #sheshift (as it’s now known) to fight that day, but there was plenty of action. Dudley says that on call after call, people took note of the all-woman squad. “They were like: Wait a minute, there’s another girl! ‘How many of you are there?’” she recalls a man who had been in a car accident asking. “And I was like: ‘There are five of us, and we got this.’”

Monica Marzullo

Title: Lieutenant and acting captain

Age: 38

Number of years in the fire service: 18

Best thing about the job: “It takes a certain kind of person to want to do this job. You have to be strong. You have to work well under pressure. You have to be decisive. And you have to be confident. It just fits my personality.”

But when their 24-hour shift ended, the greater conversation—about women’s roles in male-dominated professions like the fire service—was just beginning.

Shifting the Culture

Firefighters nationwide consider each other family. But no family is without its dysfunction, and within this one, there’s an open secret: Women in the fire service are still controversial and relatively rare.

To explain the dearth of women firefighters, some point to the fact that men and women are held to identical physical standards. Those standards—adopted in fire departments throughout the U.S.—are known as the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), an eight-event, timed gauntlet. Candidates must drag hoselines, climb stairs in full gear, carry tools, operate ladders, use sledgehammers to gain forcible entry, navigate mazes with limited visibility, locate and remove a 165-pound dummy from a simulated fire scene, and breach a ceiling. They have just 10 minutes and 20 seconds to do it all, and they must wear their protective clothing, helmet, and boots—plus a 50-pound vest to simulate the weight of a self-contained breathing apparatus. (For the stair climb event, an additional 25 pounds is added to their shoulders to approximate the weight of a high-rise hose bundle.)

Sandi Ladewski

Title: Driver engineer

Age: 47

Number of years in the fire service: 19

Best thing about the job: “I love the medical part and helping people. And there’s nothing like the camaraderie and family aspect. I love the schedule too—a typical 9-to-5 job isn’t for me.”

The CPAT is widely considered to be one of the most grueling tests required for any profession in the U.S., and many say it presents a physical barrier too high for most women to meet. But Marc Bendick, an economic consultant who conducted a 2008 study on female firefighters across North America, says that when the test is administered fairly, men and women pass at about the same rate. “It’s not every woman in the U.S. who could pass that test,” Bendick admits. “And not every man can pass it either. But the kind of women who apply for fire jobs are very athletically inclined, and they can and do pass.”

Krzywada takes pride in the fact that women firefighters have to hit the same benchmarks as their male counterparts. But, she says, that often means they have to work smarter, not harder, to get the job done. “I always have to figure out how to do stuff in different ways,” she explains. “Like, maybe I can’t pick that tool up like that. I have to find a different way to grab it, a different angle to make it work.”

Julie Dudley

Title: Fire medic

Age: 53

Number of years in the fire service: 24

Best thing about the job: “I love the physical part of it and the mental part of it. I like that we’re problem solvers; you’re constantly having to figure things out. It’s hard work, but it’s fun work.

But beyond the concerns over the demanding physical standards of the CPAT, there’s also a sexist precedent, a pervasive bro culture that says women don’t belong in the fire service. Krakowski—who worked at another department before joining Palm Beach Gardens 15 years ago—says she’s experienced the struggle firsthand. “I went through horrific hazing,” she says, recalling her days at the other department. “You’re talking about a good-old-boy system, and it’s strong.”

Ippolito says that system has to change—and he’s doing his utmost to make sure his department leads the way. “Respect for everyone on the team is embedded into the culture of our department,” he says. “Every person who works here has got to believe in and support that culture, or they won’t actually put it into practice when no one is looking.”


Ippolito must be doing something right: Female firefighters make up 11 percent of his department. If that percentage seems low, consider that the national average of women firefighters is just 4.7 percent, according to federal labor statistics.

Marzullo believes Palm Beach Gardens’ success comes from using each individual’s strengths for the good of the team and the community they serve. “There’s a job for everybody,” she says. “It takes all different types to complete all the tasks we’re expected to do.” Ippolito agrees: “Do we all have our strengths and weaknesses? Absolutely. But they all complement each other.”

Inspiring Impact

When Krakowski and Dudley posted the group photos they’d snapped during the #sheshift to their social media accounts, they had no idea what their reach (nor their impact) would be.

Initially, they pegged their posts to support Brian Wolnewitz, a 40-year-old Palm Beach Gardens fire captain who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2019. “He’s our driving force,” says Krakowski, who urges people to purchase the Firefighters to the Rescue fundraiser shirts that all five women wore in those now-viral photos (firefighters
. “We wanted to celebrate our accomplishments as women,” Ladeswki says, “but Brian was our big why.”

With a combined 6,000 likes and 4,000 shares, the story soon morphed beyond the fundraising realm and began appearing in media outlets from The New York Post to ABC’s Good Morning America to NBC’s Today Show.

As the self-proclaimed introvert of the #sheshift, Marzullo found the initial media onslaught overwhelming. But the influx of mentoring opportunities that has come along with the group’s newfound fame has allowed her and her colleagues to encourage the dreams of the next generation of women firefighters. That alone, Marzullo says, makes all of the hubbub worth it.

Krakowski tells the women and girls who’ve reached out for advice that pursuing the job you love—especially in a male-dominated profession—takes personal fortitude. “Don’t give up,” she says. “I tell them they’ve got to keep a sense of humor and not take things personally. If you have smarts and compassion to do the job, you’re going to succeed.”

Of course, on the internet, anything that attracts good attention will also attract bad attention. Ladewski says that in the wake of it all, she has followed a key online adage: don’t read the comments. “There are still some people in the fire service who don’t think women should be in the ranks,” she says. “You’ve just got to ignore it and do what you love and are good at.”

Internet trolls aside, Ippolito says that the barrier-breaking positivity of the #sheshift inspires him as both a firefighter and a father. “The message that there are no boundaries, and that you can do anything you want to do regardless of your gender, is important,” said Ippolito, who has a 8-year-old daughter. “That’s what I want for my daughter, and that’s what I want for the women in our department. That’s what I want for the women in my community.”

Future Focused

There will always be fires to fight. There will always be emergencies  to respond to. And there will always be patients to care for—like the man in the long-term facility that Krakowski and her team worked to save. Those things are all part of being a firefighter. The shift at Station 65 was staffed by a nearly all-male crew on September 19. But for one day, the women ruled. The #sheshift hopes their story helps those who will follow in their bootsteps to see a new diverse future for the fire service.

Krzywada, who admits it took her several tries to pass her fire school test, feels the #sheshift stands as a lesson to those who doubt a woman’s ability to work in the fire service. “The first time I didn’t pass the test, the director of my fire academy looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You’re done here. I would never want you working on my crew,’” she recalls. “But the irony is: I did eventually make it.”

Does she wonder if he saw the viral media coverage? “Damned straight,” Krzywada says, laughing. “I hope he saw it and recognized me as the woman he tried to discourage. He’s the one who failed, not me.”

As the dust settles on their viral moment, Krakowski says she’s come to realize that the #sheshift’s message of empowerment is just an echo of the internal monologue she returns to when being a woman—in a job that was once seen as no-place-for-women—tests her spirits: “Hold your ground. Never quit. Even with tears in your eyes, keep going,” she says. “Don’t let anybody else tell you what you’re capable of, because women can do anything.”

Hair: Rebecca Mousseu, Phairis Luxury

Makeup: Diana Escobar

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