When Bree Rios was growing up in Harlingen, Texas, her father, a firefighter, would never let her use the stove because he was afraid she might burn the house down.
Today, Bree, now 25, doesn’t set fires — she puts them out, working alongside her dad as the first female firefighter in the Harlingen Fire Department‘s 105-year history.
Hired in April and now a rookie in training, the milestone is a fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Bree, who has wanted to follow her dad’s example since she was 4.
“It was always what I wanted to do — nothing else even came close,” she tells PEOPLE. “For years, I dressed up as a firefighter every Halloween, so it’s really kind of cool that I actually get to wear a uniform now and have it mean something.”
And dad couldn’t be more proud.
“When she was a little girl, she would visit me whenever I was working,” recalls her dad, Victor Rios, “and she’d run around, climb on the trucks and interact with my coworkers. They watched over her like one of their own and answered all of her questions, from why the trucks were red to why there weren’t any ‘girls’ working there.”
“She used to always tell me, ‘One day, I’ll be working with you, Daddy,’ ” Victor tells PEOPLE. “Twenty years later, here she is and I couldn’t be any prouder. She has certainly earned this opportunity.”
Although several other women have applied to work at Harlingen’s fire department over the years, they either didn’t score high enough on the firefighter exam or decided to pursue other opportunities as border patrol officers or police officers, says the station’s assistant fire chief, Cirio Rodriguez.
“Bigger fire departments in cities like Houston or Dallas have been able to hire female firefighters throughout the years,” he tells PEOPLE, “but unfortunately, in deep South Texas, where we are, that’s not the case. Even though we encourage it, the interest really hasn’t been there until the last few years.”
“All of us here are so proud of Bree — she did this all on her own,” adds Rodriguez. “It’s very competitive and she scored high on the exam and beat out some of the guys on the agility test. She’ll fit right in, especially since most of us have known her since she was little. She’s always been part of the family.”
Bree, who was working as an EMT before she received news that she’d been hired, says it took her three times to ace the firefighter exam, but it never occurred to her to give up.
“I’d like to tell other girls and young women to go after their dreams,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m proof that if you want something badly enough, it can happen.”
Although one of her jobs as the station rookie will be to handle KP duty (Kitchen Patrol), “I’m up for it,” says Bree. “Some of the guys have also been teasing me about cooking, and I just tell them that I don’t know how because my dad never let me near the stove.”