Major fires have been raging across North America this season. With the climate change promise of an increasingly hazardous future, who are on the frontlines of damage control? Meet the folks in Fire Services.
The Intelligent Public Sector Insights (IPSI) team spoke to five women in Canada with long, varied, and prestigious careers in the Fire Services. These individuals epitomize strength, perseverance, and the ability to overcome challenges. Many came to the profession from different backgrounds, drawn to the literal flame by a passion for aiding others in taxing times. All five are in leadership positions at Fire Services across the country and vouch for fire services as a profession that offer a lifetime of experiences and lessons for everyone.
Most of the Fire Chiefs believe that the profession chose them, rather than the other way around. Three of them came to the fire services from an alternate profession. Nancy Macdonald-Duncan, Assistant Chief, Fire Prevention & Life Safety, Mississauga Fire & Emergency Services, began her career working for a law firm and became one of the first licensed paralegals in Ontario.
“My most memorable experience was when I received the Award for Excellence from the Fire Marshal when I was a prosecutor in 2007. At the time, I never even imagined I would be actually working in a fire department one day. 13 years later, I can’t imagine myself not having pursued this career.” – Nancy Macdonald-Duncan, Assistant Chief, Fire Prevention & Life Safety, Mississauga Fire & Emergency Services.
Monique Belair, the Deputy Fire Chief at Oakville Fire Department began her journey when graduating from Law and Security at the age of 18 believing she would be a police officer, then joining the Armed Forces as a Military Police Officer due to age restrictions in Fire Services, and finally getting the position of Crash Rescue Structural Firefighter with the military.
Debbie Higgins came into the fire services as a Financial Analyst, to eventually become the first female Deputy Fire Chief in Toronto, the largest fire department in Canada.
“I was working as a business planner in the City of Mississauga and was assigned to the Fire Department to assist them with some projects, including writing their Master Fire Plan, doing cost projections for their collective agreements, and writing a proposal to absorb land ambulances into the fire service at a time when the province was downloading the responsibility to upper tier municipalities.” – Debbie Higgins, Deputy Fire Chief, Toronto Fire Services.
Two of the chief have been in fire services since their Day One. Lori Hamer, Fire Chief at the London Fire Department, Ontario began her career in the 9-1-1 centre at Kitchener Fire Department as a part-time employee in 1998 and is proud to have continued in the fire service since then. Michelle Moulton, the Chief Training Officer at Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service has been working as a professional firefighter for 17 years.
Throughout their careers, these women faced what you would expect in the male-dominated world of firefighting.
“As a female who began my career in 1986, there were many challenges that had to be overcome based on my gender. It came from people assuming that firefighting was a ‘man’s job’ and that women weren’t strong enough to be firefighters. I always remember the one comment that stuck in my mind when an individual stated ‘women can’t be firefighters because we are the child bearers of society and how dare I put myself at risk” – Monique Belair, Deputy Fire Chief, Oakville Fire Department.
But they all vouch for the fact that they made a deliberate attempt to overcome these challenges. Through perseverance, continuously working on enhancing their skills and knowledge, engaging with their staff members through open door policies, forward-thinking mentors, and sheer hard work, these women turned challenges into lessons. Belair also began an initiative to pave the path for younger women in turn, with Camp Molly.
“In 2019, The Town of Oakville supported my initiative to reach out to other Halton Municipal Fire Service Leaders and launch Camp Molly. The mission of Camp Molly is to support, educate and empower 24 young women between the ages of 15 to 18 in the Halton Region about pursuing a career in fire services. I met Malaika and her step-mom on the night they came for her bunker gear fitting. Malaika was so excited to be chosen to attend Camp Molly and couldn’t thank me enough for choosing her. Her step-mom explained that Malaika had only moved to Canada 4 months ago, and in Pakistan opportunities like Camp Molly would never exist for young girls. Her step-mom wanted Malaika to experience what it was like to be free of gender barriers. In an interview, Malaika said “I have been living in a cocoon and Camp Molly gave me my wings.” And that is why Camp Molly is the most memorable experience I have had in 34 years with the fire service and exactly why we need Camp Molly for these young women. At the graduation ceremony after we played the video for all the parents and invited guests there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.” – Monique Belair, Deputy Fire Chief at Oakville Fire Department.
Working with the Fire Services is a job like no other, with experiences both joyful and harrowing, not only over the course of a lifetime, but sometimes in a single day.
“On August 14, 2019 at approximately 11pm an explosion literally rocked the city of London. I think about that day and those that followed often. I was fortunate to watch this group of 400+ employees from all divisions in the fire service come together alongside City partners. Personnel worked around the clock for days, working together and always looking out for one another and the citizens of London. Over a year later we continue to check in on one another, offering support for those who require it. I do not know if I will ever feel the immense pride I felt in that timeframe again in my career. New recruits and new employees work hard to become a part of our team, I am lucky enough to be part of this amazing team. On those days when I need strength to push through, this is the moment I recall.” – Lori Hamer, Fire Chief, London Fire Department.
Drawing strength from their experiences , these women found themselves well equipped with the ability to look at the big picture, building relations, working with a team, and adapting to changes, all skills that are increasingly important in a tumultuous world.
“The most important piece of advice would be to look at the fire service in its entirety and understand that it’s not just fire fighters. There are numerous career opportunities depending on your skills and abilities, such as fire inspectors, plans examiners, public fire safety educators, communication officers, training officers, mechanics, facility maintenance, supplies clerk and administrative support. All of these careers can be very rewarding and collectively, are a necessary function to a successful and progressive fire service.” – Nancy Macdonald-Duncan.
Having made a mark for themselves, they are also contributing significantly to pave the way for other girls in the services. Through associations, training programs, meetings, and summits, they are united in their efforts to encourage young people in the fire services and certify that gender does not define the quality of work.