HARLINGEN — Bree Rios, 29, made it clear to her father Victor Rios, 57, since she was a young girl she would one day follow in his footsteps and become a firefighter.
Victor said out of his three children, his only daughter was the one who showed most interest in his job but he never imagined she would pursue it. Now, they both understand what it is like to be a first responder and have had the opportunity to work together more than once.
Victor has a history of being a firefighter — for 29 years. He was hired in 1992 and worked for five years and then left. He came back and was rehired, which meant he started from zero in the Harlingen Fire Department.
Victor has a military background and initially wanted to apply for a police officer position, but was told about the firefighter position and applied without thinking too much about it.
“I learned to love the job. The fact of trying to make someone’s day better and trying to make a difference. That is the most gratifying part,” he said.
Victor added he loves the camaraderie and brotherhood his job entails. Having his daughter be a part of the camaraderie has only enhanced the feeling. Bree will be a firefighter for five years in April.
Both she and her father are drivers but started out as regular firefighters. She remembers visiting the stations as a child and said she was always curious about it.
“The older I got the more into it I got. At the time I was hired there were no females and I would tell him I could not believe there were no females and that made me want to do it even more, make that difference,” she said.
“I saw the difference he makes in other people’s lives and I decided to test and next thing I know, five years later I am here,” Bree said.
Since her hiring, two more women have joined the department. Now there are a total of three. For Bree, serving the community is what she is there for and what she loves most about her job, as well as teaching children about fire prevention.
Victor said he remembers Bree asking at an early age why there were no women at the department.
“She said, ‘when I get older I will be working with you daddy,’ and when she told me she applied I wanted her to pass but once she did I realized she was following her dream, she wanted it,” he said.
“It was a surprise to me when she applied, it was the last thing on my mind,” Victor said.
They do not work together, their shifts differ. However, they have been able to share a few moments in the past where they worked collaboratively.
“I wanted to have that experience with him, we had a few medical calls, nothing big but it was fun while it lasted,” Bree said.
“I felt like I wanted to do everything for her but I had to give her space,” he said.
“I wanted to show him I can do it by myself just like any other firefighter,” she said.
Every crew member has a specific responsibility but Victor said they always look out for each other.
Though Bree is now immersed in the first responders culture she said in the beginning there was hesitation when it came to her hiring.
“People wondered if I was strong enough or could be able to do what the guys do and any new firefighter has to prove themselves but as a woman I felt that a hundred times more,” she said.
“There is good but I have to be great all the time. The eyes are still on me and now as a driver too, but no one is perfect and that is the greatest challenge,” Bree said.
Victor said things are changing thanks to Bree. As they visit elementary schools and do presentations, he has heard more girls say they want to become firefighters as opposed to only boys, he said.
“Our department had a big adjustment period and it is still evolving and they have never had female drivers, she is the first. One day they will have a first female officer or a lieutenant, they are opening their eyes, they are more open, eventually a woman will be in charge and you have to do your part,” he said.
Bree and Victor have always been close, but Bree following in Victor’s footsteps and learning hands-on what his life was dedicated to has only made them closer.
“Her being the youngest and being daddy’s little girl, I had to step back and let her grow. Every time she is on duty I call her and make sure she is OK. It has made our bond stronger, if that is even possible,” he said.
“It has brought us closer because when I was younger I saw the outs but now being in the department I understand the 24 hours he was away and the emotional toll it takes to balance life. To feel what he went through and look up to him, he has always been a hero in my eyes and I knew I wanted to be like him. They tell me I have big boots to fill and my response is I hope to be as good as him but better,” she said.