Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Breaking into the Boys Club

With gender stereotypes changing, old presumptions still carry into adulthood internally as we decide what we want to be when we grow up – leaving the dirty jobs to the men who typically have broader shoulders. But along the front lines of the equality battle, more and more Edmonton women are breaking into the boys club that is firefighting. One of the oldest professions that’s exclusively hired men because of physical restraints is now seeing more and more women not only entering the field but rocking it.

“Currently there are only eight female firefighters on the Edmonton force,” says Xandra Biamonte, a twenty-three-year-old who hopes to join the fiery team of women. However, this number is significantly more than previous years. Seven of the twenty-four students graduating from Lakeland College are women – the highest number the school in Vermilion, about 200 kilometres east of Edmonton, has ever seen. In the past, the highest number in a platoon was three women.

Fire service instructor Brian Byrnell said in an Edmonton Journal interview in August that he’s noticed more woman entering the service over the past ten years.

“It’s just taken time to break down those walls,” he says. “There’s still some of that mentality out there that it’s a man’s job ... but it’s a job for everybody. They’re all held to the same standards, man or woman.”

Unafraid of the male competition, Xandra says she’s been in male dominated jobs all her life and that her father, also a firefighter, inspired her to pursue the career. However, she knows that the road to achieving her dream is paved with obstacles.

“The hardest part in becoming a female firefighter is definitely the physical training. There’s no women’s test for your application,” says Xandra. “We’re held to the same physical requirements as the men because, frankly, that's what’s required to be able to competently do the job.

Xandra continues, “as you can imagine, this of course makes it literally impossible for some women to be able to become firefighters, simply based on their build. It's challenging, but the pay-off in the end is worth it for me.”

Two women who made it into the field – Meg Konopelky, twenty-five, and Nicole Tremblay, twenty-two – know from experience what it’s like to reap the benefits. The friends have been firefighters in the Edmonton area for about two years now and currently volunteer in Sturgeon County.

Meg says that Nicole first inspired her to become a firefighter, and that is was the best decision she’s ever made.

“She finished her schooling at ESA, got on with the volunteer department, came home from training one night and told me I should look in to it,” she says. “The next week I was signed up. She changed my life.”

Having female friends in the field is unexpected with the numbers of women being so low, so it’s comforting for Meg and Nicole to be there to support each other – especially when society still has a hard time taking them seriously.

“There are the people who have some smart remark to say about women being firefighters,” says Meg. “You eventually just laugh it off and think to yourself, ‘bet they won't say that when I have to pull them out of a burning building or cut them out of a car.’”

Nicole insists that having thick skin is a must. “Being a female firefighter is becoming more accepted in society, but occasionally you get the ‘really? You're a firefighter? Don't you need to be like... strong and stuff?’ You need to be able to smile and slough that stuff off.”

While some male firefighters make snarky comments from time to time as well, Meg says they’re overall very accepting. “In the hall, it took some time for the guys to come around, but you have to understand we’re a family and spend a lot of time together and I wouldn't expect them to welcome me with open arms right away. They had to make sure I was going to fit in and not upset the balance.”

For someone yet to enter the field, Xandra says her experience with male firefighters has been positive. “They give a lot of advice and drill it into you that it’s a hard road to the application process and requires a lot of dedication, but at the end of the day everyone I've met has been greatly supportive and they hold their current female firefighters with the utmost respect because they know how hard those women work to be there,” she says.

While formal training isn’t required to pursue firefighting, Nicole says that she spent three months at Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park and receives continuous training at the fire department. “You can never know too much about anything,” she says. “If you don't constantly train you forget a lot of important things that could ultimately save your life.”

Aside from training to help a female stand out when applying as a firefighter, Nicole encourages women to double the amount they work out. She says that because women don't have as much upper body strength as most men they have to work out twice as hard as they do. “Just when you think you can't do it anymore, keep pushing,” says Meg, who knows first-hand that all the seemingly-tumultuous training at the time pays off when you need it.

Nicole agrees, recounting her most memorable experience as a firefighter a trying one. “I was inside a working structure fire of a house with my partner. It was [the] first fire [I] fought offensively [where I actually went in the house] and I was a little nervous but so stoked,” she says. “We were going in and my partner was in front of me holding the nozzle on the hose line. We were in the doorway putting water on the fire that was in the kitchen [when] the fire rolled over our heads. As my partner was trying to back up to spray the roof above us, his bottle got caught in a torn-down door frame and he was unable to move. I stepped in and tore the door frame off of him without being able to see what I was doing and we extinguished the fire unharmed. We were able to save the house and also saved one of her cats.”

The two friends, who are an inspiration for other young women wanting to become firefighters, clearly love what they do. Meg says that each night is a challenge and that she feels like she’s accomplished so much and expanded her knowledge on so many different topics. “I've overcome so many fears in these last two years that I never thought I could,” she says.

For those like Xandra who seek to join the boys club that’s the fire hall, Nicole has some advice: Don't be afraid to do what you're interested in. Even though firefighting was a men’s career for a long time, it doesn’t mean that women don’t belong in it. “Women benefit the hall because we tend to think differently and where we have weaknesses we make up with strengths that men might not necessarily have,” she says. “Don't doubt that you can do it, because if you think you can, or if you think you can't, you're right.”

To learn more about becoming a firefighter in the Edmonton area, you can call 780-496-5511. And for the rest of us, let’s hope we don’t get pulled out of a burning building or cut out of a car by Meg or Nicole any time soon – but at least if we are we can rest assured that we’ll be in capable hands.

Published in Edmonton Woman Magazine

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