Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 170 pounds, Surrey, B.C., firefighter Theresa Boles “fits through bathroom windows very nicely,” she says, which means she can get up into attic spaces during fire calls – a skill her teammates appreciate. Fire services today have changed, she adds, with different people bringing their varied expertise to a team. But women still only make up less than 5 per cent of fire-services workers across Canada.
Ms. Boles readily dispels many of the false myths about women not being able to become firefighters – which is why she and 31 other women from various fire services in British Columbia are volunteering at Camp Ignite in Vancouver to mentor teenage girls who have an interest in firefighting as a potential career.
Yura Schlegel, 17, who was recommended for the camp by her career counsellor at school and sponsored by the Burnaby fire department to attend, says she sees it as a good hands-on opportunity to learn what the fire service is all about. Alongside 33 other youth from across B.C., she’s getting a chance on this August weekend to be trained by veteran firefighters, including acting captain Rolyn Potter, who has been in the fire service for over 21 years.
The teens get to experience putting out a car fire, cutting open vehicles to free someone, how to rescue themselves from dangerous conditions, and how to handle a hydrant and hose. “Our hope is that our program becomes an empowering and defining experience that allows our participants to move forward in their lives with greater confidence in their general abilities, whether pursuing work in the emergency services or not,” says Debra Rogers, Camp Ignite’s communications and correspondence co-ordinator.
In its 11th year, Camp Ignite has grown considerably. But there was nothing like this initiative when Fire Chief Karen Fry was their age. This past January, Chief Fry became the first woman to lead the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. She made a point to visit the camp and speak with the participating aspiring firefighters. In her opening remarks, she pointed to the pioneering work of other women in the fire service.
“I stand here today as a woman, as a daughter, as a mother, as a friend – and as the fire chief for one of the largest fire departments in Canada,” she said. “My place here and my journey must not be in vain. I have worked extremely hard, and so must you all. I stand here today so when it is your turn, it will be easier – and you will not wonder if you’ve made the right choice.”
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