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Dispatches: July 2012

After sitting in a seminar at which some male fire chiefs said that gender was an issue in their fire halls, Canadian Firefighter editor Laura King suggested to me that I consider writing about it myself.

July 6, 2012
By Jennifer Grigg

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After sitting in a seminar at which some male fire chiefs said that gender was an issue in their fire halls, Canadian Firefighter editor Laura King suggested to me that I consider writing about it myself. I had to stop and think back to see if I even had a jumping off point for such a topic, let alone an entire column’s worth of material.

I hadn’t ever really had any problems being one of only a handful of women in a predominantly men’s world. Even in college (fire protection engineering technology) I was one of just four  women in a program with 60 to 70 students, and it wasn’t an issue then either.

I really wasn’t sure if I could pull this off, having little personal experience to draw from and wanting to keep this column light and humourous. Then I had the (what I thought was brilliant) idea to ask three of my fellow male firefighters for their opinions. Surely there’d be enough fodder there to jump-start my column. I mean, really, who better to ask?

Or not. The first guy I asked told me it wasn’t an issue. Didn’t have a problem with women in the hall, and he’d been on three departments that all had women on them. “What about funny things that girls do, that guys don’t do?” I asked. He shrugged. “Come on,” I said, “you can’t tell me that it’s the same whether it’s me in the truck with you or it’s so and so!”

“You smell better,” was his answer.

I had three firefighters (all good friends) I was prodding for information. I was sure that if I kept nagging them, they’d come up with something. I’m not sure if they were afraid to potentially open a can of worms by letting down their guard and being honest, or whether these three really didn’t see gender as a problem.

Fortunately, one remembered a perfect example of something he’d experienced while doing patient care at an MVC with a fellow female firefighter. He’d done an initial assessment on a (female) patient and determined that she was OK – no life-threatening injuries.

Afterwards, the female firefighter did a secondary assessment and found that the woman was pregnant, something that she had not told my friend. For some reason, she felt more comfortable with the female firefighter when it came to divulging certain information, which brought up the point that in many cases, women do very well at patient care because of their maternal instincts. (Not to say that men aren’t great at patient care too, just an interesting observation.)

 In an effort to keep the conversation going, I prodded some more. “What else? What other idiosyncrasies come into play when responding to calls or doing training with us?”

The one fella looked at me and said, “If you jumped in the truck with me, I’d ask you if you did the dishes first.” In his defence, this conversation took place on a Saturday afternoon while standing in his driveway at home enjoying a beer (him, not me) and at this point, he found himself quite funny. I can’t recall my exact response, but I’m sure it had something to do with “questioning his ancestry,” as my mother would say.

Did I take offence to it? Not at all. That’s one thing I can attest to about being a female in a traditionally male environment – the shared sense of humour among the members. Women who find themselves in the fire service generally aren’t ones who would take offence to a joke like that.

In fact, it’s those jokes that are indicative of the kind of relationships you develop with the gang in your hall. The inside jokes are a means of bonding with the people with whom you face potentially life-threatening situations when the pager goes off. The laughter and camaraderie among firefighters is definitely something that draws people in, regardless of whether you are male or female.

That was all I got out of my three friends. Patient care, perfume, and humour (or dishes, depending on how you look at it.) Perhaps if I’d stuck around longer and asked them after they’d had a few more beers, their answers would have been more forthcoming, but likely not fit for print.

One thing that comes to my mind about being a girl on the department is a story that one of my captains likes to tell. My friend and fellow firefighter and I were in full PPE at a structure fire, packs on, ready to go, when we were told to break windows for ventilation. The cottage on fire was built such that the back of the cottage was one level, and the front had two levels.

The windows we were told to break were on the second level. There weren’t any ladders handy, and I’m not sure whose bright idea it was, but we decided to try and throw rocks at the window. (As I recall, pike poles wouldn’t have reached either, just in case you’re wondering.)

Two girls with about 40 pounds of gear on, on a stinkin’ hot summer day, trying to break windows three metres above our heads, by pitching rocks at them. Do you know how hard it is to throw something up above your head like that with all that weight on your back? We are girls, after all, and we throw like them, too. The captain sure seemed to think it was funny. He was probably just waiting to see how long we’d keep doing it.

Perhaps you had to be there, but I guarantee, if it had been two guys, my captain wouldn’t have a story to tell.

Issues? Not in Georgian Bay Township! Just ask one of the six women there.


Jennifer Mabee is a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario. She began her fire career with the Township of Georgian Bay in 1997 and became the department’s fire prevention officer in 2000 and a captain in 2003. She was a fire inspector with the City of Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services before taking time off to focus on family, and is excited to be back at it. E-mail her at jhook0312@yahoo.ca


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