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More women finding the right fit inside Cowichan Valley fire halls

North Cowichan’s female contingent has grown from 2 to 6 in recent years
Women firefighters for the Mill Bay Fire Department. (Photo courtesy of Camrin Hillis)

When Jessica Clarkson joined the Mill Bay fire hall in 2018, it wasn’t unusual for equipment to fit a bit uncomfortably, or for her anti-flammable pants and thick jacket to fit too large.

Created for a larger man’s body, the misfit uniform was a regular reminder of the gender gap she was closing.

Firefighting has been dominated by men throughout history, just like many other trades and fields. Recently and rapidly, fire departments have seen an influx of people getting involved from a variety of different backgrounds and genders, specifically women.

In recent years, fire departments across Canada have pivoted recruiting efforts to make local halls more gender diverse – including the creation of an inclusion committee in 2018 by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

This came at a time when firefighting was becoming one of the last trades to open its doors for more women to join; something that a veteran firefighter like Martin Drakeley, who is the manager of fire and bylaw services for the Municipality of North Cowichan, pays attention to. Drakeley has 35 years worth of experience in fire services and has also worked as a welder.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to some people that firefighting is one of the last trades to fully open its doors to people of different genders including women. Though from what I’ve seen, I’m optimistic that more and more women will get into the trade. The interest is definitely there,” Drakeley said.

The number of women firefighters has more than doubled in recent years, from two to six, at the North Cowichan fire department. It’s definitely a positive, but there is also room for improvement and more to be done, according to Clarkson.

For Clarkson, uniform fit was one challenge that didn’t stop her from continuing her career. Any woman who is thinking of becoming a firefighter should definitely try because it can lead to a fulfilling career, she said.

“I love what I do because the job is amazing and the work we do helps the community and can change lives so if you know this is what you want, definitely go for it. Understand that you will definitely be a minority with the people you work with but don’t let that stop you.”

Like Drakeley, Clarkson is optimistic on the future of fire departments and those looking to get into becoming firefighters themselves.

“I’d say do it, but also understand that there will be extra challenges that we have to face which can seem hard but it’s nothing hard work won’t beat,” said Clarkson.

On top of women being involved and working in fire departments, more and more women have started getting involved in positions that go beyond just the fire department. In 2018, Keri Martens became the first female elected to the CAFC’s board of directors. The association went on to launch the Women Fire Chiefs and Company Officers Network of Canada.

The network aims to support and encourage women fire chiefs and provide education, mentorship, networking and celebrate women who are leaders in the industry.

Cowichan already boasts two women in the role of fire chief, Laura Couch, who is a co-chief in Caycuse, and Tanya Patterson who is the chief of the Malahat department. In addition Jeannine Caldbeck is the chief of the Thetis Island department.