Only 22 of 600 volunteer and career firefighters in Greater Victoria are women, meaning approximately 3.6 per cent of the region’s fire service workforce is female – lower than the Canadian average of 4.4 per cent.
But in a job that requires the unconditional trust and support of their teammates, many of Greater Victoria’s female firefighters say they rarely, if ever, feel they don’t belong in their majority male workplaces.
|Metchosin firefighter Gloria Lejour says joining the department helped her to push past her fears, with every achievement coming with an “addictive” adrenaline boost. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)|
“I get a lot of, ‘Oh how do you do that? You’re so small,’” says Metchosin firefighter Gloria Lejour. “You find ways to make it work. I can climb through some tighter spots … But there’s a lot more to it than a lot of people realize. It’s not just the heavy lifting and going inside burning houses.”
Jenny Reid, a career firefighter with Langford Fire Rescue, says when she was growing up, a job as a firefighter wasn’t presented as a career choice for girls.
“I was never told when I was in high school that firefighting was an option,” she says.
But Reid points to initiatives like Camp IGNITE, a Vancouver-based youth mentorship program that offers teen girls the chance to try out firefighting. In 2017, a Saanich teen went to the four-day camp, trying her hand at team-building drills and mental, physical challenges like those faced by firefighters.
“I think now there’s a lot more programs out there telling the younger generation that anything is possible, and I think we’ll see that play out,” Reid says. “I spent a lot of my early and mid-20s trying to figure out what I wanted to do and kind of stumbled upon firefighting by chance.”
After getting a degree, Reid pursued a GIS diploma and did a practicum at Victoria Fire Hall No. 1.
“Sitting in the back of the fire hall and hearing the house bells go off, it intrigued me and it made me start thinking about it.”
|Langford firefighter Jenny Reid participates in technical rope rescue training, one of her favourite parts of the job. Reid says when she was growing up, firefighting was never presented to her a career option, but she thinks that might be changing for girls in the coming generations. (Photo Courtesy of Jenny Reid)|
Amy Tai, a career firefighter with the Victoria Fire Department, is one of only two suppression firefighters on the city’s team but says most of the pressure she feels about being a woman comes from herself.
“I felt like I needed to push myself extra hard and prove something, prove that I wasn’t just hired because I’m a girl,” Tai says. “But I think Victoria did a really amazing job with that. They have a standard and they stuck to it. They didn’t give anyone special treatment.”
|“Male or female, [firefighting] is not for everybody,” says Amy Thai (right), a firefighter with the Victoria Fire Department. Tai says anyone who is thinking about a career in firefighting should feel confident it’s the right path for them. “Have that conversation with yourself and figure out why you want to do it, but also figure out is it a good option for you? You shouldn’t have to be convinced that this is the right job for you.” (Photo Courtesy of Amy Tai)|
By “special treatment” Tai refers to the gruelling physical requirements needed to become a career member. Regionally, all firefighters have to first pass a standardized physical test followed typically by secondary, department-issued physical skills and fitness evaluation. Those tests include everything from endurance treadmill running and equipment carries to hose advances, ladder climbs, dummy drags and more. They aren’t for the weak of body – or mind.
Tai says she’s seen hiring for fire departments evolve, with character prioritized next to physical durability.
“They are looking to hire leaders now,” she says. “To hire people who will grow into those officer positions versus just having brute strength.”
The physicality of the job isn’t lost on Metchosin Fire Chief Stephanie Dunlop, who joined Metchosin Fire Rescue as a volunteer member in 2000 and became the first paid female chief in the province in 2008.
“I still, to this day, pick up the phone and people ask if the chief is available,” she says. “I answer, ‘yes, this is Chief Dunlop.’”
Dunlop first became a volunteer firefighter in Peachland, B.C. in 1994. She says shifting technology and increased safety measures are, in many ways, changing the nature of the job.
“In today’s world, because prevention and investigation … has improved, the actual number of true emergencies that we go to is fewer and fewer,” she says. “We don’t have the house fires that we used to have because we have sprinklers, we have smoke alarms and education … and we don’t have as many catastrophic [car crashes] because we have airbags and better designs.
“So we do a lot more of [being] on scene for comfort and care or education … It’s not about brute strength, it’s about mental strength and endurance and emotional strength. Physical strength is definitely part of it, but it’s not everything.”
But Dunlop acknowledges that certain situations might be better suited to certain team members. That might mean choosing the six-foot-four male member for a rescue over a smaller, female member.
“They can both do the job if needed to, but I will assign the one that has a lower risk factor,” she says.
|Metchosin Fire Chief Stephanie Dunlop says women who join and stick to firefighting do it because they love their communities and their teams. Dunlop has been working as a firefighter since 1994 and in 2008 became B.C.’s first paid female chief. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)|
Women, she adds, do not join the fire service to prove anything or serve in an act of girl power or show of female strength. The women that choose firefighting as a career do so because they want to serve their communities and their teams, which by all accounts, become a second family.
Alex Marshall, career member of CFB Esquimalt Fire Rescue, says a career where she could “assist the public in sometimes very chaotic environments” sounded both exciting and gratifying. She applied to the Central Saanich Fire Department at 21 and has been a volunteer member for the last six years.
“Entering a male-dominated environment never phased me,” she says over email. “To be honest, I really never gave it much thought because I considered myself just as good. I was never taught that I couldn’t do something as good as men.”
Now as a career member, Marshall says her crew is like an extended family.
“Nobody dwells on that fact that I’m a woman. I’m just another team member,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate that during my time in the fire service I have not experienced any discrimination.”
Marshall advises women who want to join the fire service not to let fear get in the way.
“It’s a challenging and unique work environment. Don’t let your fear of failure or not being as good as men stop you,” she says. “Source us out, we will help guide you.”
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