MORRIS – When it comes to her desire to help people in need, Carissa Smith, 25, is a ball of fire.
On June 7, Smith graduated from the fire academy offered by the Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance District, making her Morris’ first African-American firefighter. Smith has now entered a probation period, which she said will last one month.
“I’ve learned the basics,” Smith said. “Now I’ll learn the Morris way of fighting fires.”
Smith said her No. 1 goal in life always has been to be a civil servant, and becoming a firefighter was just one piece of accomplishing that mission. She joined the U.S. Army in 2011, where she served as an Army medic.
“Carissa has a background in the military so she was experienced,” Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance Chief Tracey Steffes said. “She was a great candidate.”
When she came home to Morris in April 2012, Smith wanted to use her EMT license to help civilians, too. So Smith went to work for a private ambulance company and as an emergency department technician for Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital, Smith said.
Yet Smith, also a single mother of Zachary, 15 months, felt she was not using her talents to the fullest.
“I was mostly taking the elderly doctors’ appointments,” Smith said. “I didn’t get the 911 calls. I wanted something more energetic and upbeat. A friend suggested I become a firefighter, so I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ ”
Smith said she applied in September 2013. She underwent an interview, a physical fitness test and a written exam. She then was accepted into the fire academy. Instruction, Smith said, was held at fire departments in various towns, including Morris, Coal City, Elwood and Braidwood.
You name it, Smith said, she learned it: extinguishing fires with different materials, ventilating fires, evacuating victims, building materials, how to properly use ladders and good customer service techniques. This last, Smith said, is extremely important.
“We work for the city. We’re here for the people,” Smith said. “We want to have a good reputation.”
Because most Morris firefighters are only part-time employees, Smith said, her next goal is to become a police officer in a different community and then work both jobs simultaneously. She sees herself in those roles for a long time.
“I love helping people, and after being in the Army so long, I know how to handle a weapon,” Smith said. “So why not become a police officer, too?”
Such deep and dedicated love of service had a role model – Smith’s grandmother, Esther Holiday, pastor at House of Glory for All Nations, which meets at the Quality Inn in Morris.
“She’s such a hard worker,” Holiday said of her granddaughter.
Holiday, Smith said, has spent her life helping others. As a pastor, Holiday counsels people from a Biblical perspective. She has also ministered to troubled youth with their parent’s consent, a ministry Holiday would like to expand.
“Yep, she’s just like me,” Holiday said. “Because that’s all I do [is help people].”
Smith feels compelled to go forth and do likewise.
“I’ve always had that respectful mentality toward people,” Smith said. “Sometimes people need a little help every now and then.”
• Morris Daily Herald reporter Jessica Bourque contributed to this report.