Stephanie Kolibas has always dreamed of becoming a professional firefighter. After volunteering for 10 years, her dream became a reality in August. In doing so, she also made a bit of history, becoming Hamilton Township’s first female full-time professional firefighter.
“It is the thought that never left me,” Kolibas said. “To volunteer that long you have to love it. You feel so accomplished with whatever you deal with on the scene. After the scene you feel good, even doing the little things, and feeling sweaty and dirty. If that bothers you, you don’t belong in this job.”
Kolibas was inspired by her uncle Steven, who was a firefighter in the city of Newark and died when she was five. The family still has Steven’s gear. Kolibas has his name tags and vivid memories of him.
“We never forgot him,” she said. “My family says I am a lot like him—my sense of humor is the same as his. Our personalities are the same. He got me this little fire hat. My mom still has pictures of me wearing it. She didn’t think it would end up being my career.”
The 31-year old Hazlet native first volunteered with the North Centerville Volunteer Fire Company in her hometown. After high school, Kolibas attended trade school and joined the reserves at the Stryker Army Reserve Center in Hamilton. She then graduated from Rider University with honors, earning a bachelor’s in psychology. But knew she wanted to work with her hands.
“It took a little time to figure out what I wanted to do in the long run,” she said.
She volunteered at Mercerville Fire Company while at Rider and in the reserves. After passing the Civil Service exam and the physical exam—being able to move quickly while wearing a 40-pound vest up and down 12 flights of stairs with a 50-pound pack containing 50 pounds of hose—Kolibas interviewed for and was offered a full-time position with the Hamilton Township Fire District No. 5 (based at DeCou Hose Company a few blocks from the Whitehorse Circle).
DeCou Chief Gregory Kirkhan said Kolibas was the district’s first pick to hire after two of its firefighters retired. Since then, Kirkhan said he has heard great things about Kolibas’ work from her captain. Kirkhan worked one shift with Kolibas, and could tell right away that she has the ability to be an asset for the district for a long time.
“Everything she does will be groundbreaking,” Kirkhan said. “The sky is the limit for her.”
While she learns her way around town, Kolibas is also learning how to drive the fire trucks, a skill that also requires being able to pump the truck and get water to the fire.
In Hazlet, they used the “scramble system,” where everyone who is available must rush to the fire station when the alarm sounds, then respond to put out the fire.
At DeCou, the full-time firefighters work a Pitman schedule—two days on, two days off, three days on, and the reverse days the following week.
“You have to be at the fire house all day, or training,” Kolibas said. “As a volunteer, I liked the scramble system. I got used to it—in the middle of the night, the alarm would go off. This is nice. It is my job.”
Kolibas has worked part-time jobs since in high school. Former positions include eight years as an army reservist (including serving one year in Operation Iraqi Freedom), an EMT, working for a transport company taking patients to different medical facilities, working at a supermarket and at a gym. She continues to be an as-needed per diem EMT in Lawrenceville.
In 2005, Kolibas started working at the Monmouth County Fire Academy towards her certification to become a Firefighter 1. Her training continues daily at DeCou.
“These are great guys to work with in this capacity,” Kolibas said. “I’ve learned so much from them. They are very helpful. It is a different lifestyle. You are expected to learn and focus on one thing at a time. Learn this and focus. Our number one objective is everyone comes home alive.”
In many ways, being a firefighter reminds her of being in the military, including the camaraderie and helpfulness in the ranks.
Since moving to the Hamilton stations, Kolibas received training from New Jersey Transit on how to work with trains, since there are a lot of voltage concerns with trains.
The DeCou Hose Company houses both full-time and volunteer firefighters. Some volunteers are like her, working with the hope of eventually passing the Civil Service exam and becoming professional firefighters.
The Civil Service exam is given every three to five years. The last time it was offered was five years ago when Kolibas was about to be deployed. Kolibas decided to wait and take it the next time, which wound up being Hamilton’s gain. She was also in the running for a job in Philadelphia, but passed because she didn’t want to leave this area. Her parents and brother live down the shore, and her sister lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
She has jumped into her life at Fire District No. 5 fully. The DeCou Hose Company will celebrate Fire Prevention Month with an open house on Oct. 14 from 5 to 9, and although it is Kolibas’ day off, she plans to be there.
“It is one of those things I really love,” she said. “Kids look at you like you are a hero.”
It is her hope some little girls see her in her gear and realize they, too, can become professional firefighters.