EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Getting used to wearing five-inch heels should be a breeze for Tamara Esche.
After all, she has been wearing the much more cumbersome gear of a volunteer firefighter for six years.
The 5-feet, 4-inch tall Esche says she needs the heels to give her a little height for the Miss Indiana pageant, which she'll be competing in this June.
Esche, 22, is a lieutenant on the German Township Volunteer Fire Department and a certified emergency medical technician. She also is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Evansville and is considering a graduate degree in business management.
And, yes, she is a seasoned beauty pageant contestant.
German Township Fire Chief John Buckman recalls how Esche was "a little bitty high school senior" when she and a friend first expressed an interest in joining the fire department after her FFA group visited the fire station.
"I was like, 'Wow! I'm not sure we have gear small enough to fit you,'" he recalled telling her.
But they found it, and Esche pursued with zeal her dream of joining the fire department and becoming an EMT.
"She is a beautiful young woman, but she also is not afraid to get down in the mud and get dirty, as firefighters are required to do," Buckman said.
Esche grew up a "daddy's girl" on her parents' small farm in western Vanderburgh County and took an interest in all things mechanical at an early age, watching her father work on equipment and vehicles. Her brother, John, 19, also has a mechanical inclination and is a freshman in the same program at UE.
"For my first 10 years, I think my dad thought I was a boy," she laughed.
But Esche also had an interest in medical things, and when she discovered the volunteer fire department, it offered the perfect solution. As an EMT and firefighter, she could pursue those interests -- and experience the adrenaline rush she sought -- and study engineering at college.
"Not much grosses me out or scares me anymore," she said.
She soon learned, though, that there was more to it than the thrill of fighting fires.
"I get to help people. It's hard to describe how it feels to help people who can't help themselves," she said.
She learned it is just as important to be there at the scene of a fire or disaster holding a concerned or grieving family member's hand as it is to be in the middle of a blazing inferno rescuing somebody.
"She has an extremely large heart," Buckman said, and an "empathy for the pain and suffering of others."
Esche also has taken on the role of public education and fire prevention for the German Township department, working with schools in the township on fire safety and programs.
It was her idea last year, Buckman said, to have a fire safety day at the department and distribute tickets to children for fire truck rides.
"We probably had more than 200 people visit that day. It was a huge success," he said.
Esche said her participation in beauty pageants began with local Labor Day pageants when she young, something she was eligible for because her father, Bill Esche, is also a union sheet metal worker.
"I was shy growing up, and they saw it as a way to help me," she said. "I have no problem speaking to people now."
After winning the 2006 Labor Day Association Queen crown, Esche said, she decided she had what it takes to pursue a Miss Indiana title and compete in the Miss America contest.She won the Miss Ohio Valley contest in November and became one of 30 Miss Indiana contestants. The Miss Indiana contest will be June 16-21 at Zionsville, Ind.