TAYLORSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Every time 18-year-old Elizabeth Drake walks into the German Township Volunteer Fire Department's fire house, she walks right past her father's gaze.
Even though he's been gone for a year and a half.
Her dad, Lt. Rick Drake II, died at age 39 on Nov. 1, 2010, after suffering a heart attack at the station. But his rack and locker remain intact.
"It's hard, but it's good to walk by and to remember him," Elizabeth said. "Sometimes it feels like it was only a couple months ago."
The daughter, who has served the department as a cadet since she was 14, wears her father's fire jacket and pants on emergency runs. She's especially thankful for the suspenders that accompany the oversized gear for a dad she still sees as a bit larger than life.
"Yeah, it's all a little big on me, but I don't really mind," she said.
Elizabeth will receive her state firefighter certification on Wednesday, an important step for a department that advertises its need for help on a large yellow banner stretched outside the station. Her mom, Christy, and brother, Andy, 20, once were part of the department, too.
"Dad wanted us to have something where we could bond," Elizabeth said.
She has comforted accident victims and swept debris from emergency scenes.
"I'm not afraid to get dirty," she said, sitting in an office at the fire house. "But I also am a girl who likes to look nice and have a sense of style."
To that end, she enjoys the employee discounts at Columbia Sportswear at nearby Edinburgh Premium Outlets, where she works part time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, on a recent night as she learned to use a chain saw to slice into roofs, she made jokes about being drenched in sweat wearing full regalia, including an oxygen tank, in the spring heat. She also laughed about the fact that her prom date probably was unaware that she wielded an ax quite capably during the session — and yes, she has ridden a fire truck to the big event before.
Still, she called the exercise the toughest maneuver she had been asked to master during the 24-hour, monthlong departmental training program that has covered skills ranging from climbing a ladder to busting into structures.
For now, she plans a career in pediatric medicine and perhaps a foray into medical missions, rather than firefighting. But her training sessions have included emergency medical information that will serve her well one day.
"That's one of the main reasons I agreed to join," she said.
A Columbus North High School senior, Elizabeth loves the adrenaline rush of the work.
"It's scary, but there's always that hope of actually helping out someone," she said.
Friends notice when she has posted on Facebook photos from training or fire runs.
"Oh, you're so bad," a male friend has teased her about her role in a male-dominated field.
Hanging around the fire house, she has learned to deflect the ribbing that comes with the territory.
"They still pick on me for back when I was a dorky little kid," she said.
But she and her mom know that the fire house holds their second family. Elizabeth held her 17th birthday party there and donned her gear for maybe 15 peers. And on the night her father died, Elizabeth's mom recalled, they traveled from Columbus Regional Hospital back to the station to find the place packed with firefighters from all over, including members of Supporting Heroes, a group that helped pay bills and handle other family needs for a time.
"Doing this has been one big way for Elizabeth to keep her dad close to her," Christy said.
Father and daughter shared more than a bond of love.
"Rick had a servant's heart," Christy said. "All he ever wanted to do was help others. That is a similarity shared with Elizabeth."
She said that she had never worried for her daughter's safety.
"I knew they would always be keeping an eye on her," mom said.
Kelli Jo Gatewood, the emergency medical captain for the volunteer department who also is a full-time firefighter in Fishers, said Elizabeth was among a distinct minority.
"In many places, fire houses still have that boys' club mentality," Gatewood said.
She said fewer females serve on full-time, paid departments with paid staff partly because the physical test is tougher for women to pass. But German Township is looking for ways to reach out to young candidates, male and female.
"We're hoping eventually to get more involved with the high schools here," Gatewood said.
Elizabeth plans to attend Indiana University Fort Wayne in the fall. She hopes to return to firefighting here in the summer.
Before she ended a recent chat, she stopped at her dad's rack. His number, 807, has been retired. Elizabeth wears 814.
She noted that she can't make "the 2 and 3 a.m. runs" because of school. But, make no mistake, she has become part of a selfless team whose pay comes in the safety of others.
"Really, I just feel like one of the guys," she said.
Information from: The Republic, http://www.therepublic.com/