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November 6, 2013
By Laura King


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Nov. 6, 2013, Toronto - I wasn’t sure how to react when I saw the headline on our website yesterday afternoon: Prince George fire halls to install female washrooms. I figured the department had been under pressure to get with the program and was playing catch up – to use not one, but two clichés.

Nov. 6, 2013, Toronto – I wasn’t sure how to react when I saw the headline on our website yesterday afternoon: Prince George fire halls to install female washrooms.
I figured the department had been under pressure to get with the
program and was playing catch up – to use not one, but two clichés.

Then I read the story.

It turns out that there are no female firefighters – yet – in Prince George, but the city is adding facilities to three of its four stations (one is already equipped) in anticipation of hiring women.

Deputy Chief Blake King told the Prince George Citizen that one woman applied in the last recruitment round and passed the aptitude test, the physical ability test, the interview and the medical exam, and is on list of eligible probationary firefighters.
“She’s on the list and it’s just a matter of how many retirees we have over the next year as to when we get there,” King said.

So, the department is being pro-active.

Which is a bit of a contrast to a story I heard last weekend at the Fire Service Women Ontario conference in Gravenhurst; one firefighter has been fighting for a female washroom to no avail, and is at her wit’s end. I’m not clear whether it’s a budget issue and the municipality won’t (or can’t?) pay for renovations, or there’s more to the issue; regardless, it’s a ridiculous problem to have in 2013.

That, however, was the only negative tidbit I heard over two fantastic days of training and workshops with more than 100 firefighters, fire investigators, fire-prevention officers, public educators, and instructors.

Finally, it seems, chiefs, purchasing committees and suppliers understand the importance of properly fitting PPE for women’s smaller frames – extra-small gloves and face pieces, more tapered bunker gear and women’s-size boots; finally, it seems, instructors understand that modifying firefighting or extrication techniques to better suit women’s bodies – with their lower centres of gravity – is an option. Little things that matter.

This, of course, is despite the recent behaviour of a couple of Toronto firefighters who foolishly tweeted insensitive and inappropriate quotes from TV shows and were fired, and the goofiness of some B.C. firefighters who sent a package of feminine hygiene products to a hall that had hired its first woman. What were they thinking?

Well, the conference’s keynote speaker, Barbara Annis – an expert on the differences in the way men and women’s brains work and how they think and communicate – might suggest that none of the men involved in the two incidents was thinking at all, at least certainly not about the consequences.

I heard a lot on the weekend about respectful workplaces, about the need to hold women to the same physical standards as men, about mentoring. Two of the conference delegates – one a career captain in the GTA – are pregnant and were the subject questions from young women who wanted advice on how to balance career and family. A handful of conference delegates were men, including one metro chief who was roundly applauded for his open-mindedness.

The purpose of the conference? To educate young women about fire-service careers and empower them, through mentoring, to become leaders. Some of the delegates were young women considering fire-service careers; some were brand new volunteers; some were rookie firefighters looking for guidance on career advancement from their more experienced peers – pioneers, as FSWO president Carol-Lynn Chambers calls them.

The career captain – who goes on maternity leave next week – was in the group I observed at Saturday morning’s session on gender intelligence. When others started to speak negatively, she proposed solutions; when there was an awkward silence, she jumped in with ideas; when others went off on tangents, she brought the conversation back on track. Without realizing it – because, for her, it’s standard procedure – she was leading the group. And setting an example.

Which was the point.

You can see conference photos on my Facebook page here.


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