I recall a playground discussion in grade five about Fire Fighters. The boys were saying it was physically impossible for a woman to be in the profession, that we were weaker and weren't meant for that kind of work. "I'm not being sexist," I remember one boy saying, "It's just a fact that it's a man's job." And although I have since seen proof first-hand of the agility, strength, and real grit women are capable of, I have to admit that at 35, there was still an echo of that playground sentiment that rang possible to me. So when I called Fire Hall #1 to inquire if Saskatoon boasted any female fighters, I was happily surprised with their reply: "Oh yes, we have eight!"
Today, I'd like to introduce you to Debbie Davies, one of those eight women who proudly serve in the Saskatoon Fire Department. At 21 years on the force, Debbie is a Senior Firefighter and newly qualified to act as a Lieutenant. She's also a Primary Care Paramedic as well as an instructor in First Aid, CPR/AED and Fire Ground Survival. And if those credentials aren't enough, Debbie is also a member of the Rope Rescue Team, sits on the EMS committee, and is a peer adviser for the Critical Incident Stress Management Team. I can almost hear the boys in my own grade five class gasping, "no way!" but I was happy to learn that attitudes have changed significantly toward female Fire Fighters. As a few of us OCMers took our kids along on this amazing tour guided by Debbie, it was really cool to watch our little ones who only saw a Debbie as a heroic Fire Fighter, not as a woman breaking down gender barriers. My heart melted to see the normalization being instilled so naturally. But enough with the preamble, let's get to the tour... and to meeting Debbie!
Photos by DESIREE MARTIN PHOTOGRAPHY.
Being in Fire Hall #1 was intimidating for ME let alone for the kidlets, but Debbie brought a calm and welcoming energy to the group immediately and went over safety protocol just in case an emergency came along. Because, y'know, emergencies do happen regularly! As her many co-workers walked here and there on their way to various tasks, I did notice they were all men and I asked Debbie what drew her to a different-than-traditional job. As it turns out, in her family being on the force is indeed traditional: her dad was a Fire Fighter for 38 years. Debbie herself was always athletic and loved action (her parents even jokingly nicknamed her 'their son, Debbie') so when in 1992, the first female joined the Saskatoon Fire Department, her dad called Debbie up in Vancouver where she was living and told her to come try out. "If anybody can do it," he'd told her, "it's you." Two years later, she was on the force!
When I asked Debbie if being one of the only women in the Department had unique challenges, she replied that being a woman in the workplace no matter the sector is a challenge. One of the main differences? Men don't grow babies! Debbie has two kids (a 13-year-old girl, Tia and a 9-year old boy, Tasmen) and in addition to maternity leave, she also moved to other job positions during her pregnancies because Fire Fighting is so high-risk. But she spoke so positively about the Fire Department's support in that, and I have to say her stint in Community Relations would have also been a great fit for her personality. I mean, just look at her engagement in showing our kids around the Fire Truck cab!
Something most of us forget is that Fire Fighters do more than fight fires; these people are our First Responders, the ones we rely on to rush to the scene when we call 9-1-1 whether the emergency is on the road, in our home, or in the water. Debbie has borne witness to tragedies that I'm not sure I'd have the wherewithal to leap into with aid. Debbie says she deals with the stress by compartmentalizing her emotions in the moment of need so she can take quick, decisive action. She calls it her "Firefighter mode" and it's a method she unconsciously uses in times of personal crisis, too. It's only human to empathize, to reflect, and to grieve; she just tries to find the right time to feel those emotions later on.
There are, of course, triggers along the way and it's not easy for any First Responder to remain composed at all times, but that is the job and it's one of the most important ones in society. No matter your gender, says Debbie, being a Fire Fighter is not for everybody and it takes a thick skin. Having children, she admitted, did soften her a little bit, but in my opinion, the birth of a child offers a renewed perspective on life and that is always a positive. Life is precious, and I found the quickest way to forget that is to get caught up in living! When my little Petra came along, it was a moment to reflect upon how amazing and fragile we all are.
In the photos above, you'll see "The Rookie" donning all of his gear for the kids. We moms loved that when Debbie asked the kids, "Does he look scary?" she also answered with them, "No, he looks helpful!" It's important for kids to know that if ever a suited-up Fire Fighter comes into a home, they are to be trusted.
As for the daily life of a Fire Fighter, it's more structured than I'd have guessed and there are allocated times every shift for drills, education, and whatever else is on the day's agenda. Contrary to what I pictured, a Fire Fighter is usually stationed at a specific Hall rather than rotating around. This means the team becomes like a family, and Debbie said it will be a sad day when her Captain retires because he's been a fabulous mentor to her. In fact, she counts many male co-workers as her go-tos and has formed a solid support system within the Department. It was heartening to hear that her experience has been so positive!
Also positive has been the community's reaction to Debbie's presence as a Fire Fighter. Sure, kids might excitedly remark that she's a "girl", but that's certainly not a negative. And when a drunk person stumbles over and jokes that they could take her to the bar as a bodyguard, that's a sort of compliment, I guess! Debbie summed it up, and all of us OCMers agree with her, that prejudice is taught. So whether it's a woman in the Fire Department or a child who has two moms, normalization comes naturally to children because they see with untampered eyes.
I'd like to extend a sincere thank-you to Debbie Davies for showing us what life inside Fire Hall #1 is like and to her lovely co-workers for their hospitality. I asked what Debbie thought as a child of her dad's work as a Fire Fighter and she told me she was filled with pride for him. And though her dad has now passed on, I'm certain her kids feel that same pride for Debbie's work. It's an amazing pledge that Fire Fighters make in keeping the safety of the city first and foremost, and this post got me and my blogmates feeling extra thankful for the behind-the-scenes safety net that so often we don't appreciate until we need. So it's on behalf of OCM that I extend a thank-you to the entire Fire Department. Here's hoping I don't have to call y'all anytime soon... unless it's for a follow-up post.
xoM (and Desiree Martin, who took these awesome pictures. Check out her professional portfolio here.)