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Female chief of Pekin Fire Company a first for Niagara County

PEKIN – Tammy Snelgrove just made history.

The 44-year-old mother of two took office Friday as the first elected female fire chief for a volunteer fire company in Niagara County.

The move to the top in the Pekin Fire Company has been several years in the making, as Snelgrove moved up the eligibility ladder. Still, she says the honor is “overwhelming.”

She takes the reins from Kevin Beutel, who has served as chief for 12 years and will become her first assistant.

“She’s the only one in the company qualified to take over,” he said.

Snelgrove, a 10-year veteran, was the top responder for Pekin, answering 185 calls from last December through this past month. The Pekin company covers portions of the towns of Cambria and Lewiston, including the Tuscarora Nation.

“Her numbers speak for themselves,” said Beutel. “I think she missed 15 calls all year. I was third (in answering calls) and I was chief and she was miles ahead of me. And, she’s a good leader, there’s no doubt.”

Snelgrove also works full time as an administrative assistant at Orleans-Niagara BOCES, right around the corner from the fire hall, and has two sons, Joshua, 20, and Jaret, 17.

She recently took some time to talk about her volunteerism, interrupted toward the end of the conversation by an emergency call, of course.

What first drew you to volunteer firefighting?

My father, Jim Reinard, was a volunteer firefighter with various companies, so I grew up in it. In fact, he was assistant chief at Pekin at one time and retired from the Pekin company.

When did you join the Pekin company?

I was married and had my kids and when they got older, I had time to do what I wanted to do, so I joined Pekin in 2005. I trained for interior firefighting, then trained to become an EMT (emergency medical technician). I’ve been an EMT for six years.

How did you move up through the ranks?

You have to be in the company for at least one year and off of probation before you can run for office. We have our elections every November. I knew I wanted to be on the fire side (of the company), because that’s my thing.

I was fourth assistant for a year, then third assistant for a year, then second assistant and first assistant for a couple of years each. I just moved up the ladder gradually.

Our chief said to me, “It’s time for me to step down and for you to move up.” Kevin has been a huge mentor to me. Someone nominated me and a few others for chief in November, and I won.

How does it feel to be the first elected female volunteer fire chief in Niagara County history?

It hasn’t really sunk in yet ... We had our installation Dec. 5. My dad and mom were there and my dad was pretty proud. All through the steps, fourth assistant, third assistant, etc., I would always call my boys first, then call my dad and tell him.

How many active members do you have in Pekin and how many are women?

We have 27 active members and six are women – but it depends on their schedules how active they are. One, for example, is a cardiac nurse, so she comes when she can. She’s an EMT, too. I have another one who is very, very active.

I was the only girl for about five or six years. Some had joined before me, but they never stayed active.

Do you think having a female chief will encourage more women to consider this form of volunteer work?

I hope so. Some think this is something females can’t handle. But you have to work from the ground up, like I did. And, the more calls you go on, and the more things you see, and the more things that you are put in charge of – you realize you can do this. You can handle the stress. You learn to flow with it.

How many calls does your company handle a year?

We have 200 to 250 calls a year and a majority are EMS (emergency medical services) calls. We have 10 EMTs. The EMS calls are for things like car accidents and house calls. Our fire calls have actually been down.

How much time do you, personally, dedicate to the fire company a week?

I’m at the hall all of the time, whether it’s doing paperwork or helping with something around the hall. I’m also the adviser to our Explorer Post’s junior program, for ages 14 to 21. And, I’m secretary for our exempt organization, for those who still want to be involved in our company, but not on the fire side of it.

How do you balance family, career and all of the hours you devote to this?

This is 24/7, 365. It’s a big thing to be dedicated to. You really have to consider the time it takes to be dedicated to it, but it’s the community that pulls me in.

When I’m on a call, I think, “What if that was my family? What if that was my child?” When I’m on an EMS call, I put everything in my heart into it.

When you go to someone’s house who is sick, you just try and give them a little kindness. When they say, “Thank you,” it just puts a smile on your face. You were just doing what you needed to do.

But you might also save someone’s house, someone’s home. Community is what makes us whole and giving back to the community is what I want to do.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.