As a college student in 1999, Denise Gluck remembers flipping through a coursebook at Suffolk County Community College when an EMT class caught her eye.
With a dream of one day becoming a nurse, the then-19-year-old signed up immediately.
Little did she know that the two-semester-long class would spark an interest in joining her local fire department and, 17 years later, she would make history as its first female chief.
Ms. Gluck, 42, was installed as chief during a ceremony Jan. 10 after climbing the ranks from captain to third assistant chief.
“Being able to do this in my own community and see people that I grew up with or went to high school with or know their parents, it’s nice to help out somebody that you know and really feel like you can make an impact,” she said at a recent interview at the firehouse. “It really is a special feeling.”
Ms. Gluck said she enjoys the camaraderie that comes along with being in the department, which she said is like a big family that’s been supportive of her goals since she joined the department.
While she started as an EMT in the rescue company, it was only a matter of time before she was hooked and decided to complete fire school training in Yaphank.
“Everyone’s been very supportive. Some of the guys would come down every Sunday morning and train and teach me how to do everything,” Ms. Gluck said.
She briefly left the department after moving out of the district in 2005 while completing a master’s and doctorate degree in nursing and health care administration and rejoined in 2011. “I started waking up in the middle of the night thinking that the pager was going off,” she said, laughing. “I really, really missed it.”
Most local fire department volunteers and first responders can recount how harrowing the last two years have been, shouldering the burden of transporting people with COVID-19 to the hospital on top of other, standard calls.
Throughout the pandemic, Ms. Gluck offered a unique perspective to the department, as she currently works as the director of nursing for emergency services for NYC Health and Hospitals/Bellevue in Manhattan.
Though stressful and scary, her experience at the hospital helped the department keep one step ahead as new guidelines were issued and she was able to provide information and offer her own medical expertise. “It’s been very helpful for me, being at work, being able to get information, living it and bringing [that knowledge] here,” she said.
In her new role as chief, Ms. Gluck said she’d like to increase community outreach, address recruitment and retention issues and begin planning a celebration for another historic milestone: the department’s 75th anniversary.
And she isn’t the only woman in her family breaking down barriers. In November, her sister, Danielle Willsey, made history in the Riverhead Town Police Department as the first female officer to attain the rank of lieutenant.
Ms. Gluck said growing up, the thought of not being able to do something because she’s a woman never crossed her mind. “Don’t let anything stop you,” she said. “There’s nothing you can’t do if you set your mind to it.”