Jersey City made history Tuesday when it elevated a veteran female firefighter to the post of deputy fire chief becoming what Mayor Steve Fulop called the highest-ranking woman in the fire services in New Jersey.

And “possibly (highest) in the tri-state area,” added city Fire Chief Steven J. McGill.

She’s Constance Zappella, who was promoted from the rank of battalion chief. Zappella joined the JCFD in 2003 and was initially assigned to Engine Co. 9 at Duncan and Bergen Avenues, where she worked through 2008. 

While serving with Squad 4, responding to fires city-wide, she was named captain in 2011. After a stint with Engine Co. 17 on Kearney Avenue, Zappella made battalion chief in 2017 and worked out of the 2nd Battalion Co. in Greenville.

“I had strong female role models growing up in Jersey City,” Zappella said. But she also paid tribute to her colleagues in the JCFD and, in particular, her “mentor,” Deputy Chief Anthony Dellarosa, who marked his last day with the department Tuesday, retiring at age 65 after nearly 41 years of service.

Zappella, a 1997 graduate of McNair Academic High School, said she had no prior familial role models inspiring her to enter the ranks of Jersey City’s Bravest. The closest she came was an uncle who served with the Jersey City Police Department.

Nonetheless, at age 20, while a sophomore on a full academic scholarship at St. Peter’s University studying for a business degree, she figured she’d give it a try,.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it,” she recalled of filling out the application.

But once Zappella committed, she never looked back. She said she couldn’t see herself doing anything else as a career.

Still, she made a point to finish her SPU degree in economics and sociology, completing 57 academic credits to graduate at the end of her junior year in 2000. And while awaiting the JCFD’s processing of her job application, Zappella got a taste of the world of finance, working for Merrill Lynch. 

That experience only served to solidify her decision to join the uniformed ranks. “Finance was too cutthroat,” she said. “I’d rather be part of a team.”

And that’s what she’s been over the last two decades, clearly enjoying the experience.  She said she’s worked hard to get where she is today, earning certifications as a Level 2 fire instructor and as a fire inspector and having worked part-time for the Monmouth County Fire Academy.

And, whether she intended to or not, she’s begun to build a legacy of firefighting now that her younger sister joined the JCFD two years ago.  

Zappella joins three other veteran officers who were similarly bumped up a notch after all passed a state Civil Service test to achieve their new rank. The other new deputies are Shawn O’Connor, Loren Hart, and Joseph Altomonte.

Departmental records show that Hart also joined the department in 2003 while O’Connor and Altomonte were hired in 1997. Altomonte made captain in 2008 and battalion chief in 2017. O’Connor and Hart were upgraded to captain in 2011 and then to battalion chief in 2017.  

Altomonte, one of five siblings who grew up in the Heights, recalls how his mother, an Italian immigrant, feared for his safety when he opted to apply for the JCFD — but that he persisted. He is a certified substitute Jersey City public school teacher and in his seventh year as the mayor of Matawan, his current residence. “I’m up for re-election next year,” he said. He and his wife have four children and five grandchildren.

O’Connor, a graduate of Hudson Catholic High School who completed three years of a fire-science degree at New Jersey City University, is also qualified as a substitute teacher in Jersey City amd has coached in the city’s youth recreation program and volunteered with Our Lady of Victories Church.

The new deputy chiefs were sworn in Tuesday during City Hall ceremonies attended by municipal and fire officials, fellow firefighters and numerous proud family members and friends.

They’ll start their new duties Friday.

McGill said the four new D.C.s would all replace retirees. By enacting the new promotions now, McGill said, “we’ll be where we need to be” in terms of top-level staff who help him run the department on a daily basis.

This has been an exceptional year for the JCFD, the chief said, not only with the appointment of the department’s first female deputy chief, but also with the organization of a new fire company that “rescues the rescuers.”

“We also reached the mark of 700 (departmental) members,” he said, which likely means that Jersey City has surpassed the size of the Newark Fire Department.

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Ron Leir

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...