SPFR smokes national average for female firefighters

Erin Menday poses at Sun Peaks’ fire hall. Photo supplied

Across Canada around four per cent of firefighters are women. At Sun Peaks Fire Rescue (SPFR) 28 per cent of their volunteer crew is made up of female firefighters.
Erin Menday said having so many women at the hall made her more comfortable when she joined in January.

“(It) gave me the confidence to know that I would be accepted as a valuable member of the department (and) team,” she said. “I really like that I don’t feel like I’m one of the few girls in the hall. I just feel like I’m another one of the group.”

The 27-year-old is part of SPFR’s most recent recruit class, in joining she brought the number of girls at the hall to seven.

It’s something fire chief Colin Cannon said he’s happy to see.

“It’s great,” he said. “I haven’t done anything special other than to welcome everybody… It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman as long as you can do the job.”

That welcoming atmosphere has been well received by recruits.

Abby Wilson during live fire training. Photo supplied

Volunteer Abby Wilson said she’s felt welcome since she joined over two years ago.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt treated differently because I’m a girl,” she said.

WIlson pointed to Kyle Vike as a member who’s been especially supportive.

“We were in the same recruit class. He’s always there to back me up and tell me I can do it.”

The industry has drawn criticism in the past for a lack of female representation and inappropriate behavior. A 2015 investigation by CBC found some female firefighters face bullying and sexual harassment, but the women of SPFR said they’ve always felt like part of the team.

“Everyone was super warm and welcoming,” said Lindsay Smyth. “I can’t see it being different than anyone else’s experience.”

Wilson and a few other members mentioned their size can pose a challenge, but nothing they can’t overcome. In fact, SPFR work experience program member Sammie Mayor said she’s found being smaller can be a benefit. She pointed to using less oxygen from her tank, fitting more easily into confined spaces and being able to enter a vehicle to comfort a patient as examples.

“I’ve definitely been underestimated based on physical strength (at other departments),” she said. “But I’m the type of person when someone tells me I can’t do something I want it even more.”

Sammie Mayor is a member of this year’s Work Experience Program team. Photo supplied

Mayor added on some calls being a female can help with patient experience and comfort. Smyth, Menday and Wilson agreed.

“There are certain calls where (having a woman respond) makes a patient more comfortable,” Cannon said. “They will be more open with a female than a male.”

Tarrah Karmann joined in 2015 and realized she was passionate about the job. It led to her becoming a paramedic and she now works for BC Ambulance Service.

“My experience has been amazing and challenging,” she said. “Being a woman adds some challenges in the fire and first responder community, but not at all with SPFR. This organization is very welcoming.”

She added being a single parent can add more hurdles but the SPFR team is understanding when she can’t attend a practice and supports her in balancing her family and other responsibilities.

“I hope I can be an example of what’s possible and perhaps give others encouragement to get involved,” she said.

Tarrah Karmann and her son Greyson in 2016. Photo supplied

Mayor also hopes to show other women what is possible.

“My goal (while in Sun Peaks) is to reach out to women in the community and volunteer girls and just mentor them,” she said. “I want to be there for other women trying to get into the field. I’d love to work one-on-one with other girls.”

But why are so many women joining SPFR? Aside from being welcoming Cannon pointed to the strong ski patrol team that works for Sun Peaks Resort LLP.

“The overlap is excellent. They can make a living in Sun Peaks and join the fire department. If patrol didn’t exist there might be less female firefighters because patrol has a balance of male and female…they’re people who are hardwired to help people.”
In fact Smyth, Wilson and Menday all have varying levels of experience working in ski patrol.

Smyth said training and experience from SPFR has improved her work patrolling, especially as many calls are medical emergencies.

Lindsay Smyth during training. Photo supplied

Menday, who started as a dispatcher, is considering taking on patrol shifts since completing her emergency medical responder certification through SPFR.

“I saw them (patrollers) bringing in patients and was like ‘this is really cool,’” she said. “I just signed year round with patrol… Doing that (SPFR) has really made me realize I want a career in first response.

“I feel like the hall has tied in with patrol and given me a real purpose in Sun Peaks. I’ve always had a job in Sun Peaks but never really felt like I was moving forward.”

For Cannon, the environment at the hall is something he’s proud of.

“With Bill (Stoner, the previous chief), and with me there is no old boys club. It’s never been acceptable for the last 20 years.

“The population is 50-50 and you should represent the community that you’re in.”