Playing with fire Two women wait to be hired by the Jersey City Fire Department

Maureen Nally spends her days watching her 4-year-old daughter, coaching college track teams, and recruiting high school athletes. But if her wish comes true, she will soon be rushing into burning buildings with a long rubber hose.

Nally is one of two females currently waiting for the Jersey City Fire Department to hire new firefighters. In 1999, Nally and Constance Zappella were among the applicants who took the firefighter exam, and were placed on a three-year waiting list upon passing. Mayor Glenn Cunningham promised that a female firefighter would be part of the department’s staff by the end of this year.

For now, however, Nally has continued to keep up her active lifestyle of raising her daughter and exercising. Staying in shape is second nature for Nally, who has a reputation in Jersey City as a former track star.

During her high school years at St. Domenic’s in Jersey City, Nally played basketball and ran track. Then she brought her athletic talent to St. Peter’s College, where she received scholarship money to run. Aside from her present day coaching duties at St. Peter’s College, Nally still enjoys participating in her own races by running marathons and other types of races around the country. For one thing, she has enjoyed running in novelty races that consist of running up the stairways of skyscrapers. “The harder the race, the better it is, in my book,” Nally said.

For the past 12 years, she has participated in this type of race at the Empire State Building. One of those years, she did it while being three months pregnant. “You can’t stop living,” Nally said. “I was at the gym the night before I had the baby.”

Before giving birth to her daughter Ashley, Nally worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. “I did a lot of work with the summer nutrition programs,” Nally said. During the summer, she would deliver breakfast and lunch to low-income areas. In the off season, she spent most of her time researching grants and filling them out to obtain more money for these types of programs. She made sure that the supplies hit as many churches, camp sites, and housing projects as possible.

When stumbling upon a flier in 1998 that described the Fire Department’s need for minority applicants, including women, Nally was inspired to seek a career in firefighting. One of her six siblings had been in the department for a few years, giving her a good idea of what was expected.

“I took the same test, male or female,” Nally said. “On the day we took our physical test, we only met in sets of four and five. I beat three out of the five guys.”

After leaving the physical exam, Nally was driving on Storms Avenue when she saw a building on fire. “I ran in the vestibule and pulled the alarms,” Nally said. A woman on the first floor handed Maureen her child so she could get her pets out of the apartment. As Nally waited outside while the fire engines pulled up, people from the exam began crowding around the building. “The guys from the state said this was fate,” she said.

Since then, Nally has waited for an opening in the department. She is the 33rd person on the list. There are 300 people on the list, and it’s based on the scores on the written and physical exam.

When she talks to people at the gym, Nally gets positive feedback. “It’s all nice,” Nally said of the public response to her endeavor.

Making a difference vs. making money

People may wonder why someone who had an opportunity for a prosperous career in the financial sector would want to ditch it to be a firefighter. But Constance Zappella, a 23-year-old graduate of St. Peter’s College, could not see herself sitting behind a desk for the rest of her life.

Zappella not only double majored in economics and sociology, but received her degree in three years. During this time, she interned at Merrill Lynch and learned that it was not the job for her. “You’re not exactly active,” Zappella said.

Her trial run at Merrill Lynch came after she had already become interested in the Fire Department. Like Nally, she had been lured by the eye-catching advertisement seeking minorities to apply. “I wanted to help people,” Zappella said. “In the corporate world, everyone’s money hungry.”

So she did some research on the test, picked out the parts she found most challenging, and exercised accordingly. In her mind, the hardest part was running up 12 flights of stairs with 95 pounds strapped onto her body. So she invested in a 50-pound bag of sand and practiced running up the dormitory stairway every day.

“I’m going to put everything into being a firefighter,” Zappella said. “No one could bring more strength than that.”

She remembers people staring at her in amazement on the first day that the applicants did a practice run. “They dropped their jaws when they saw me running up the stairs,” Zappella said. At that point, she recalled, many firefighters started to strap on weights and copy her exercise routine. But it was too late by then.

Out of the 66 women who took the exam, Zappella and Nally are the only two who made the cut of 300. Aside from beating out those women, however, she managed to beat most men, too. Zappella is number 24 on the list, and said she was “really happy that I scored as well as I did.”

Rather than inform her parents about her interest in the Fire Department, Zappella waited until she received the results. Her mother, she said, could not understand why she would trade a lucrative career for a dangerous one. But Zappella had made up her mind, and has patiently waited for the hiring process to commence.

That was three years ago, and she is becoming worried that her efforts were in vain as the city falters over its ability to hire new firefighters. In September, she took a position as a substitute teacher at P.S. 25 in the Heights.

Despite the discouraging news that the city has only made attempts to extend the waiting list for another year, Zappella said that fighting fire is still what she wants to do.

“I could’ve stayed at my job and died being miserable,” Zappella said. “Here I could take the chance of dying, but do what I want to do.”


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group