An Interview with a Greek-American Volunteer Firefighter
Volunteer firefighters; the term conjures up visions of fire trucks with Dalmatians riding the running boards, soot-covered men racing into a burning building, protected by fire gear from head to toe, looking as if they are reckless and careless, but today’s firefighters are anything but that. They are continuously trained, educated, and taught to fight fires. They are professionals, and they are also your neighbors, the local business owners, students, and many more who give up their time and safety to save communities from the devastation of fires that destroy structures and sometimes people’s lives.
The volunteer firefighters at the South Media Fire Company Station 51, in Media, Pennsylvania, are no different. The fire alarm goes off, and these firefighters drop what they are doing and respond, except for one little difference. Two of these brave souls are females, both single moms, who have gone through all of the training and certification and will run into the burning buildings alongside their male counterparts.
One of these female firefighters is Dora Giannakarios Preston, born in Sydney, Australia, but grew up in the Greek-American community here in the Delaware Valley, where she helped her father, Harry Giannakarios, in his auto repair and gasoline shop with the record keeping. She is a graduate of Upper Darby High School and Drexel University, and she eventually established, owns, and operates her own company, Medical Equipment Resources, Ltd. Having a passion for volunteerism and giving back to the community in general, Dora took the ardent road to become a volunteer firefighter and was Nationally Certified in 2018, and recently completed her EMT training and working on her national certification.
To be one of the first Greek-American female firefighters and EMT trained is an accomplishment in itself, but this self-described “bad-ass” has one more surprise. Her eighteen-year-old son, Harrison James Preston, is also a volunteer firefighter for the same firehouse with his mother. They have responded together at fires and other emergencies, which, as a result, has formed a special bond between them, besides mother and son, that very few people have.
CP: What kind of people are firefighters, and what have you observed about this culture?
DGP: They are individuals full of heart and care. To be on a call with the crew and mutual aid fire companies, seeing them come to the rescue, and the care of a complete stranger is truly humbling. The mother in me wants to hug every one of them. You see a caring, dedicated side of these amazingly dedicated individuals.
CP: Why did you and your son become firefighters?
DGP: We both enjoyed volunteering, and we wanted to extend that to our local community. It has empowered both of us and also created a greater bond between us. Seeing each other coming to the rescue and care of the community has tapped into the inner greatness that we all possess.
CP: You grew up in Australia and moved to the United States at an early age, and immersed in our local Greek-American community. Has that helped you in any way with firefighting?
DGP: My work ethic and drive were influenced by my late father Harry Giannakarios. At a young age, I helped him with the record keeping of his small business, which influenced me in owning my own company. He was a self-made man and was the patriarch of our family. His character, drive, love for the family, and growing up in a Greek household, is the base of my success. I’m proud of my heritage as it gives substance and depth in a world that can be superficial.
CP: As a woman, what are the pressures of working in such a male-dominated field?
DGP: I have constantly worked around men and do not find any pressures. I do not make it an issue. If you make it an issue, it becomes one. But, in my opinion, I would say I’m a badass. I believe each woman is extraordinary on her own, and a lot of women do not recognize their strength and capabilities. Once I became a mom, my inner strength and energy grew with confidence that soared. I came to the realization that someone planted the seed, I grew it, developed and changed the future with the birth of my sons. What a gift! Greek American woman to me means a warrior. I fight and persevere through challenges. The challenges are growths and stepping stones to an amazing journey of life. Having the Greek blood fueled me to the badass status. I’ve become a volunteer firefighter nationally certified, and just finished EMT training. I am working on my EMT national certification now. There must be something to be said about the inner strength of a Greek woman.
CP: You have gone through the process of becoming a firefighter together with your son, Harrison. What has it done for your relationship with him?
DGP: We both did Intro to Fire, Fire Ground Support and Exterior Fire, Vehicle Rescue and EMT training together. It has bonded us. As a mother to see my son caring for the community has validated the nurturing and guidance I have provided for him. It’s pretty awesome to see your son in a First Responder role and be on a call with him.
CP: Tell us a little about your son and his future.
DGP: Harrison is a well-grounded young man with a drive to serve. Although quiet, he has inner greatness to serve his country and community. My son will be going to Norwich University as an ROTC candidate and then work his way to the Air Force Academy. He has seen and done things young men his age will never do or see. He will also continue to volunteer where he can.
CP: Can you share a moment about being on the job with your son that really moved or inspired you?
DGP: My son and I were on a cardiac arrest call. We both were in the ambulance compressing the patient. We ended up in the trauma room switching off every five minutes continually compressing the patient. Ten minutes before the doctor called the patient, I looked up to see my son standing on a stool over the patient doing compressions on the patient. From the time of dispatch to the emergency room, I had not taken in the scene since we were vigorously working on compressions. for the patient. However, at that moment, when I looked up to see my son, it was the proudest moment (next to giving birth) a parent can witness, watching your child compressing a patient and doing everything he was trained to do, was awesome and emotionally rewarding.
CP: Your field can be very dangerous. How do you feel about that and is there a certain adrenalin rush you have become addicted to?
DGP: I try not to focus on the danger, just the care of the community. Basically, I look at it as mothering and caring for the community in general. In the beginning, there was that adrenaline rush, but now, I just focus on the task at hand. You need to concentrate on the task to avoid any dangers. The key is keeping ourselves safe so we can keep the community safe.
CP: What is the reaction to people when they see you, a woman, fighting fires
DGP: A fire alarm came in as I was getting home from a meeting. I rushed to the station and threw off my heels, jewelry, hiked up the dress, and got my gear on. At the call, the occupants were surprised to see a well-manicured lady. Totally impressed them!
CP: Firefighters have nicknames for each other. What’s yours?
DGP: At the Fire Academy some of the instructors and students called me “Mama.”
CP: What advice do you give young women who may be thinking of becoming a volunteer firefighter, and how does one become a firefighter?
DGP: Anyone can volunteer in any capacity at the fire station. If you’re not into fire fighting, you can help with fire police, fundraising, building support, IT, marketing, etc. Our doors are open for anyone who would like to help and serve the community. Fire fighting comes from within, it’s an inner drive. Become a member at your local firehouse and then start taking courses and certification for firefighting. It’s truly rewarding.
CP: What’s next for Dora?
DGP: I’m a personality with an inner drive to constantly keep moving forward and growing intellectually and emotionally. I just want to keep training to be a better First Responder for my community. I will keep running my business and will find some time to volunteer at an ambulance company. I am truly honored and humbled to be able to volunteer in this capacity. It’s so empowering and rewarding.
Written by Harry Karapalides and Eleftherios Kostans
Photos: Eleftherios Kostans