Editor’s note: The story was corrected to show that Trina Jiles, 48, was the first Black woman firefighter in Clark County and the second in the state of Nevada.
Trina Jiles felt like she could conquer anything whenever she put on her fire gear.
She was confident and fearless, despite being a “girly-girl”—as she jokingly described herself.
Jiles was the first Black woman in Clark County to become a firefighter and the second in the state. She was just 22 years old when she joined the Clark County Fire Department (the largest in the state) in January 1996.
“It was, by far, the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life,” Jiles, now 48, said in a recent interview.
Jiles, who is now a retired arson investigator, was among several others to be featured in a series of webinars last week in celebration of Black History Month. The webinars were hosted by the Nevada Treasurer’s Office.
Jiles shared her experiences as a firefighter with the Reno Gazette Journal. She recalled when former Clark County Deputy Fire Marshal Samuel Smith, who was also a member of the Professional Black Firefighters of Clark County, asked her to join the fire department.
At the time, Jiles said she worked as a receptionist for human resources at the Clark County Fire Department. She was also a beauty pageant contestant and dreamt of becoming a model.
“I kind of took a look at my nails and thought, ‘I’m not cut out to be a firefighter,’” Jiles said.
But when Smith mentioned there were no Black women firefighters, it piqued her interest.
That same day, she paid Smith a visit at his bookstore, Native Son. It was previously located on West Monroe Avenue and D Street but has since closed.
“‘Can you drop down and give me 10 pushups?’” Jiles said Smith asked her. “I dropped down and gave him like 25 or 30 pushups, and I had a dress on at the time.
Jiles was the only woman out of 40 men at the academy, referred to as “rookie school.” She said she felt anxiety about being the first Black woman, but she was most nervous about being a female firefighter.
“It was a complete culture shock, to say the least,” Jiles said.
Staying true to herself
Jiles described her time at the 20-week-long academy as challenging.
“For the first two weeks of rookie school, I cried like every single day because I just thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Jiles said.
Still, her mother pushed her to try her best and reminded her that not everyone would like her. But, if she worked hard, she could gain their respect.
She remembered when she was just starting out as a firefighter and a senior firefighter tied a noose and handed it to her. Jiles said he asked her if she knew what it was, and she said yes and handed it back to him.
She said she took it as a way to intimidate her.
“I never told anybody,” Jiles said. “I knew it would have been a huge issue, and I was on probation. I didn’t want to make waves.”
She was eventually assigned to Station 14, C Platoon.
“The C Platoon on the Clark County Fire Department is like the platoon where all the cowboys are on,” Jiles said. “There were firefighters who had confederate flags on the back of their vehicles.
“I would extend my hand, and some of the captains would shake my hand; some of them wouldn’t,” she said.
Still, Jiles helped educate her colleagues about her culture. When she was asked to shave her head, she refused. Instead, she cut her hair short and took the issue up the chain of command.
“As a Black woman, our hair takes years to grow like two or three inches — years,” Jiles said, adding she had to pick her battles. “So, they researched it and found it to be fact. They said I didn’t have to shave my head as long as it didn’t touch my collar.
“I believed that I was creating the blueprint on how they viewed all Black women,” she said. “I was very careful and methodical about what I wanted to display as far as what was valuable to us.”
Jiles said she worked hard to prove she was worthy of fighting fire alongside the men. She worked 24-hours a day for 10 days a month. At that time, she lived at the fire station with the other firefighters.
She would eat breakfast and dinner with them. Their family members would get together at the fire station on holidays. She described the fire department as a brotherhood and sisterhood.
“And so, some of the same people who gave me a hard time, in the beginning, ended up being people who would give their life for me if I needed them to,” she said.
Jiles, who is the youngest of six siblings, said her work strengthened her bond with her own family.
As a single parent, she relied on her mother to help care for her son, Tyler, who was born prematurely. Jiles said her water broke at just five months of pregnancy. She was hospitalized for two-and-a-half months until her son was born.
She recalled the doctors telling her that her son likely wouldn’t survive long. But miraculously, he did. He remained in Neonatal Intensive Care at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center for 100 days, she said.
Her fellow firefighters were at the hospital with her. They would bring her pizza and ice cream.
“He really ended up being like everyone’s kid,” Jiles said. “They were with me the whole time that I was just sitting in the hospital waiting for him to deliver.”
Embracing her femininity
Jiles said the culture of the fire service wasn’t inclusive of women.
In the late 90s, the fire stations were being retrofitted with restrooms for both men and women. Before then, Jiles had to lock the door and let others know she would be taking a shower.
The job itself wasn’t easy either.
“You had to have tough skin,” Jiles said, adding she responded to traumatizing medical calls, including shootings. “And then, you turn around, and you’re on a large-scale fire, and then you’re back at the station cooking dinner like nothing happened.”
Jiles said some firefighters didn’t necessarily look at women in the “best light.”
“But I had the opportunity to change their outlook on that, and I did just that,” she said.
To create a more welcoming environment, the fire department hired a diverse group of firefighters that represented the community they served, Jiles said. That included hiring women.
She recalled seeing the amazement in children’s faces when she would take off her helmet. It was always when she was within her own community.
“The kids were like, ‘That’s a girl! That’s a girl!’” Jiles said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I bet you didn’t know that was a girl up under all of that.’
“I really turned a lot of their opinions around because I wasn’t afraid,” she said.
Jiles took pride in her work. She always kept her uniform ironed and her boots spit-shined and clean.
Still, Jiles embraced her femininity. She even competed in the Miss Nevada USA pageant in 1998 — the same year she became a paramedic.
She said she also won Miss Congeniality. Her colleagues came out and supported her.
“I never really gave up who I was as a woman,” she said. “But I understood that I couldn’t be worried about my nails while I was fighting a fire. I couldn’t worry about being dirty, hot, and sweaty.
Jiles said women who are interested in the fire service need to be themselves. They can’t worry about acting or looking a certain way to fit in.
“The fire service is an awesome career for women,” Jiles said. “Times have changed from when I was hired in 1996 to now.”
Jiles eventually opened her own restaurant, Gritz Café, in 2008. She later retired from the fire department in February 2017.
She said there are now more women in the mostly male-dominated workforces. Some of the “baddest” firefighters she’s met were women, a few of whom were 5-feet-2-inches-tall.
“You really can’t judge a book by its cover,” she said.
Marcella Corona is a reporter covering local underrepresented communities in Northern Nevada.Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.