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Being a female firefighter in Cumberland County

Ten per cent of firefighters in the Municipality of Cumberland County are female, including (from left) Carissa Atkinson of Southampton, Stephanie Small of Truemanville, Heather Melanson of Joggins, Andrea Bishop of Collingwood, and Kathleen Betts of Pugwash.
Ten per cent of firefighters in the Municipality of Cumberland County are female, including (from left) Carissa Atkinson of Southampton, Stephanie Small of Truemanville, Heather Melanson of Joggins, Andrea Bishop of Collingwood, and Kathleen Betts of Pugwash.

UPPER NAPPAN – It was her first year as a firefighter, and Kathleen Betts was taking part in Fire Prevention Month activities at her local elementary school. She remembers catching the attention of one particular student.

“It was a little girl, and she was elbowing the boys beside her, saying, ‘Look, it’s a woman fireman!’” she recalled. “She was so excited… her eyes were as big as saucers.”

Moments like that are crucial in showing young girls and women that females are a welcome and accepted part of the fire service, she said, and have that option to pursue, either as a community volunteer or a career firefighter.

Ten per cent of the Municipality of Cumberland County’s 332 firefighters are female, and fire services coordinator Mike Carter would like to see that number continue to increase.

Betts, who volunteers with the Pugwash Fire Department, was one of five female firefighters in the county to sit down recently and share their experiences.

Carissa Atkinson was a member of the Southampton Fire Department’s ladies’ auxiliary for about 10 years, and was serving as president when she decided to step down and join her husband, Joe, on the department.

“I planned to go into it and just do medical first response (MFR) stuff, but Level 1 firefighter training was being offered first,” she said. “I thought I would take that while waiting for the MFR course to come up, and I loved it. We did live fire training in Parrsboro, and it was the coolest thing ever.”

Andrea Bishop had a similar experience with Collingwood Fire Department. She had been involved in scouting, and asked her husband Jake to “put on the brown shirt” and join her. He agreed, but only if she would join him on the fire department.

Twelve years later, she has not looked back. When the pager goes off, they respond to calls together.

“It makes it a lot easier because I found it hard when the kids were small and Jake would go… he’d be gone for hours and I’d be pretty stressed out,” she said. “Now he’s on the truck and he worries because I’m in there. I told him I’m never going to die in a fire because he’s not going to want to be stuck with four kids, even if he has to pull me out by the ponytail.”

All of the women seem to have either a husband, father or brother on the department they serve with, and admit it might be harder for a woman to come and get involved if they didn’t already have that familiar face there to make them feel welcome.

Heather Melanson already had two brothers and a stepfather on the Joggins Fire Department when she joined, and said firefighting has always been part of her family life.

“I don’t feel a barrier at all in our department, we’re treated equally,” she said. “I definitely think there’s room for more females. It’s a great life experience for women, and I think a lot of them would be really involved.”

Stephanie Small’s father had been involved with the Truemanville Fire Department for about 30 years, and she always knew, growing up, that she wanted to join someday. She did, and said it has been a very rewarding experience.

While a lot of women might be intimidated by the physical demands of firefighting, Small said there is a role for everyone.

“A lot of guys are physically stronger than I am, but we all have different strengths,” she said. “I’m smaller too, so if we need someone to get in a tight space, it’s always me.”

She took advantage of the many opportunities presented to her, and took Level 1 firefighter and MFR training within her first six months of joining.

Other than the occasional comment, the women said they have not experienced sexism or anything to make them feel unwelcome.

“The odd time you meet someone that’s old school, saying what’s a woman doing here? But then you surprise them,” said Atkinson. “They think you’re just turning up to look cute in the turnout gear and stand off to the side, but when you get in there and you’re dragging the hose through the mud and helping clean up at the end of the fire, doing everything they’re doing, it kind of shifts from ‘There’s a woman’ to ‘There’s a firefighter beside me and we’re just doing our jobs’.”

All of the women said they just want to be treated the same as everyone else, and none of them care about dirty jokes or if someone calls them a fireman instead of a firefighter.

“I asked to join the department,” said Atkinson. “I didn’t say, ‘Make it comfortable for me to come in’. I wanted to go and do it. I wanted to be a firefighter.”

The camaraderie of being part of the fire department is important for Small, who said she could call on any of her fellow firefighters for anything.

“It’s like having 25 annoying older brothers,” she said.

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