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FSWO hosts symposium in Ottawa

October 17, 2019
By FFIC Staff

Oct. 17, 2019, Ottawa – In 2007, three firefighters from the Ottawa Fire Service jumped from a third-story window onto the pavement below after fire threatened to engulf them in flames. Although everyone survived, one of the firefighters, early in her probation, sustained a broken vertebra, a fractured arm, broken teeth and burns on her arm.

“To help her recovery, this firefighter attended a women’s training weekend in the United States to gain back some confidence in her skills and restore her commitment to the fire service,” said Louse Hine-Schmidt, president of Fire Service Women Ontario (FSWO) in a news release, who begin its 10th annual conference today in Ottawa.

“She trained with several other women firefighters and experienced the unique benefit of women learning from each other, especially given the isolation that can exist in a profession largely staffed by men,” President Hine-Schmidt added.  “Her story is one of the many inspirations that shaped, and will be acknowledged, at the Fire Service Women Ontario conference on this 10th anniversary.”

The FSWO 2019 Symposium and AGM will be held in Ottawa fro Oct. 18 to 20. The event brings together women predominantly, but also several men in the fire service industry, to discuss gender bias, racism, sexism, workplace diversity and the need for gender balance in the fire hall. Workshops provide expert instruction and open discussion on how women can integrate more seamlessly in the fire service — when less than five per cent of its workforce is made up of women.

The event attracts women firefighters from around the world given that the organization is the only one of its kind in Canada. Founded in Ottawa ten years ago with strong leadership from the municipiality and the Ottawa Fire Service, its founders created the renowned recruitment program for women, Camp FFIT, which has since kindled similar programs across Canada and the United States.

The Symposium provides an opportunity for women to participate in hands-on training on firefighter survival, assessment, fire suppression, forcible entry, the use of power saws, roof ventilation, auto extraction and strength and conditioning.

The keynote speaker for the conference is London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton. As a woman firefighter, Cotton attended several high-profile incidents including the Clapham train crash a few months after leaving training school, and the Cutty Sark fire in 2007 when she oversaw a 40-pump fire the day of the Olympic closing ceremony. Since becoming Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, she has led the brigade during the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower when 72 people died, and 70 others injured.

“Women can lead very differently to men, which we should celebrate and embrace,” Cotton said in a news release. “However, sometimes it can be difficult for women leaders to find role models and mentors in male-dominated organizations. Women must stay true to themselves and their values and not try to be somebody else. We only ever really discover our true inner strength when we lead under pressure and build the personal resilience that allows us to be the best we can be in times of extreme stress.”

Firefighter Ali Rothrock from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania will share her story of trauma in the fire service, and the factors that lead to a PTSD diagnosis, including a sexual assault. She will talk about the cultural similarities that exist in all firehouses and the challenges that women face in the fire service. She will spend time delving into mental health issues that impact firefighters including the stress continuum and suicide.

Other instructors include Captain Michele Fitzsimmons of the Fire Department of New York and firefighter at the 9/11 terrorist attack; and Fire Chief Jona Olsson from Latir, New Mexico, named Volunteer Chief of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 2012 — and subject expert on the improved function of emergency responders when gender representation is respected and balanced.

“Helping women firefighters socialize within a predominantly male team, in a healthy way for the entire squad, and encouraging the value of teamwork and communication are key success factors,” said President Hine-Schmidt in a news release. “Good physical conditioning is obviously important for all firefighters, but the success of any emergency squad is based on its capacity to communicate to one another, to work as a team and to collaborate. Women are particularly good at that.”

The FSWO 2019 Symposium and AGM is taking place at Collège La Cité which has a major outdoor training structure and tower used by its students in the fire service program. Much of the hands-on training for the symposium will take place at this field structure, adjacent to the 911 Institute, which features new digital fire simulation equipment that makes the exercise highly realistic.