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Demystifying the multifaceted career of firefighting

Firefighter Debra Rogers of the Campbell River Fire Dept in Britiish Columbia rappelling in full uniform.

Despite being part of a firefighting family (4 generations!), following the same career path as her brother wasn’t something that was presented as an opportunity for Debra Rogers and her sister.  Debra got into accounting and administrative work, working for the film industry in British Columbia, eventually raising her own family.

After several years, Debra became a single mom and was working a lot but realized that it was time to find a career that offered financial stability to support her family.  Debra saw an ad for a fire department dispatch job and went through the seven-part intake and testing process. Part of the appeal of the position was that the contract also allowed dispatchers to apply for fire training!

Debra was a dispatcher for 7 years, but when she saw a firefighter position open up, she went for it!   Since it takes time to actually make it through training and work to get onto the fire trucks, Debra didn’t make it to the Campbell River (Vancouver Island) truck crew until she was 47 years old. 

“I came to it late in life,” she says of her drive to apply to something new. She also feels that her age could be a benefit for preparing her mentally for some of the work.   “You work with families and people in crisis, having some maturity and life experience allows me to be more patient, more empathetic, and more understanding.” 

What does your typical day look like? 

Debra works a 4 on/4 off rotation comprised of 10 hours days or 14 hour nights.   A typical day as a firefighter includes: 

  • Starting with a quick meeting with outgoing crews to get updates on apparatus, equipment and related issues in the hall or community 
  • Tackling a routine task such as cleaning the kitchen, washrooms, bay floors, etc. 
  • The vehicle operator doing a formal truck check on the primary pump apparatus while coworkers check the tower or other vehicles (this check includes making sure that all necessary equipment is on board and fully operational) 
  • Various training 
  • Property inspections, picking up supplies, running errands, or general hall activities 

Each member of the crew has assigned responsibilities and is allocated time to complete those as well. These tasks can include overseeing ground ladders, SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) maintenance, and ordering turnout gear (i.e. coat and pants worn for attending fires).

Debra’s job is Pre-Plans, so she ensures that property pre-plans are uploaded and available for responding crews. Pre-plans are important because they provide responding crews with critical information about the property, including where to locate standpipes, hydrants, and utility shut-offs. 

“After 4:30 pm most days we are allowed to work out. All of these activities are adjusted depending on call volume. My department currently responds to approximately 3,000 calls annually.”  

Is it hard for a woman to become a firefighter?

Can women be firefighters? Yes, of course, says Debra: “It isn’t brute strength, it’s resilience…it’s being brave.”  

But there are some issues. In her region, she finds that many women excel in their training but often struggle when it comes to the firefighter fitness testing. The job has some very physical demands and many women are adversely affected by the heat exposure. 

Debra’s goal is to provide knowledge and resources so future candidates can better prepare; that is why she dedicates a significant amount of time to Camp Ignite.  

What is Camp Ignite? 

Camp Ignite is a day camp for young women in grades 11-12 (ages 15-18 ) living in British Columbia who are interested in learning more about the fire service. The program runs through exploring the career and its expectations with activities designed to both physically and mentally test a participant’s limits.  Attendees get an opportunity to try auto-extrication, hazmat operations, technical rope rescue operations and learn about the various tools and skills needed to be successful in the fire service  Camps revolve not just around the career itself, but includes fitness, nutrition, health, and teamwork for attendees, as well as networking and mentorship opportunities for both aspiring firefighters and the experienced firefighters who run the camp.   

Debra has worked hard to ensure the camp runs each year and in 2020, encouraged conversations about the need to be more inclusive for non-binary individuals and members of the LGBTIQ+ community.  

This year the camp runs August 14 & 15, 2021, in Vancouver. Students can apply here.

Why aren’t there more women firefighters? 

“I do think it’s necessary to demystify it,” says Debra. Along with highlighting aspects of the career through Camp Ignite, Debra says that anyone interested in joining the fire service needs to realize that it is a multifaceted career and you don’t just get to jump on a fire truck. “The work includes auxiliary training, and that requires evenings, weekends, and online work.”  

“I see the future for female firefighters as very bright. The opportunities and accessibility are there and more frequently you can see female representation in all areas of the fire service.”  

Do you have any advice for young women who are considering this career? 

Debra says that firefighting is an incredible career and the important thing is to remain open to lifelong learning.  

  • Seek out good training opportunities 
  • Volunteer where possible 
  • Align with groups that help you add practical knowledge to your training 
  • Align with a mentor as early as possible 

Debra adds that since fitness is such a large component of fire service work, undertaking a healthy lifestyle that includes a mixture of strength training and cardio fitness will serve candidates well.  You will also need to build your confidence.

Debra says that while there was some “cultural stigma” when she transitioned from dispatch to suppression, she also had her own limiting beliefs about her ability to do the job, including a great fear of failure. 

“I had to muster courage I didn’t always have. I had to utilize adaptive techniques when I couldn’t simply muscle through a task. I had to make space for my own vulnerability and let go of my self-judgment. I had to trust that my training would get me through and that I could access the skills necessary on any given day. I switched from fitness and strength training to cross-fit training when I learned at my first structure fire that firefighting, as I see it, is about short bouts of explosive strength and stamina. And, I had to learn to work with men and read their social cues in an environment that is dominated with Type A personalities.”   

What can you do in high school? 

To build on her general advice, Debra says that it’s never too early to explore the many avenues of emergency service work.  “Some municipalities offer student opportunities where youth can spend time at the fire station and interact with the fire crews doing training and job familiarization. Organizations like St. John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross provide many opportunities to work on your first aid skills and explore your interest in medical response. Search & Rescue organizations are another way to explore your interest and provide valuable training.” 

Here is another tip: “Fire service personnel give back lots to their community as part of the job, so any early demonstration of community contributions will reflect well on you as a person.”  

Finally, ask many questions. “Talk to emergency service personnel anytime you can and ask them about their work. Most are eager to share their knowledge and experience and will be encouraging to future firefighters.”  

Would she change anything? 

Debra says that she has no regrets. “I wanted to challenge my self-perception and do something that was hard and uncomfortable. I am rewarded daily and, as I embark on my fifth year as a firefighter, I finally feel like I can hold my own on the job. I take pride in what I do and I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve my community in this way.”  

“And, somedays when I see I young girl smile brightly at seeing a woman behind the wheel of a firetruck, I know that I am where I am supposed to be!”

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