According to several online statistics, less than five per cent of firefighters in Canada are women.
However, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District says it is working hard to ensure that gender doesn’t define a great firefighter.
Case in point: Kara Slous, an on-call firefighter at the Tappen-Sunnybrae Fire Department.
“I was a South Shuswap first responder first. It’s our first aid medical association,” Slous said. “And there were a few firefighters on that association that noticed my dedication and they told me to come try out the department, and it escalated from there.”
Slous was immediately hooked.
“It was really exciting and I liked being with a group that worked so well together,” Slous said.
In the four years she has spent at Tappen-Sunnybrae, Slous quickly moved up the ladder, even making captain at the young age of 24.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Slous said. “Your main role is to run the fire practices, so you’re telling everyone what to do. And, on the scene, you’re the team leader. You’re calling the shots.”
Most recently, Slous has moved to a training officer role.
She’s also a member of the Shuswap emergency program structural protection unit, a co-chair of the fire services occupational health and safety committee and is certified as the district’s live fire instructor.
“Women bring a completely different dynamic to the fire department and, with all of our separate skills, we really bring the department up,” Slous said.
For the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, recruiting and promoting women just makes sense.
“We have a number of women in our fire service. It’s not 50/50 at the moment, but certainly we have a lot of women,” said the district’s protective services team leader, Derek Sutherland. “And we have a lot of women in leadership roles. We’ve had three women as fire chiefs, deputy chiefs, captains, training officers.”
So, what exactly is the district’s philosophy on gender equality?
“Quite frankly, we don’t give it a lot of thought,” Sutherland said. “We’re inclusive as a regional district and we promote the best person for the job and, quite often, that’s a woman.”
Sutherland says that it’s not necessary for firefighters to be able to do every role.
“We don’t ask everyone to be everything to the fire department,” Sutherland said. “There’s certain people that have specialties that enjoy doing one or two things really well, and we just ask them to come out and do that.”
The 13 fire departments in the district are made up entirely of paid, on-call volunteer firefighters.
“So we get paid for our practices, and any call we go to we are paid for that. And it’s pretty exciting,” Slous said. “All of a sudden, the tones will go off. You’re in the middle of dinner, you could be with your family, you could be out at work and you get to run off and fight a fire.”
The amount of calls vary by station but Slous says the Tappen-Sunnybrae Fire Department received about 90 calls last year.
“It’s bigger than yourself. It’s bigger than your neighbours and your community,” Slous said. “It’s for everyone.”
Slous has some advice to women who have an interest in firefighting.
“It is physically demanding, but it’s just about figuring out how to do it with your body and your momentum,” Slous said. “Go in, be persistent, be determined and just do the work and you’ll get through it all.”
The Columbia Shuswap Regional District is encouraging anyone interested in becoming an on-call paid volunteer firefighter to attend a Tuesday evening training session and test things out.
Candidates must be 18 years of age or older, possess a valid driver’s license, live and/or work in the district, and be physically able to perform the duties of the job and commit to weekly training sessions.