Halifax's only black female professional firefighter paves the way

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Halifax's only black female professional firefighter paves the way

Natasha Prest is a trailblazer paving the way for others as the first and only black female professional firefighter in the Halifax region.

She works out of Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency's West Street station, not far from the community she calls home. Prest was raised in Uniacke Square, a public housing complex in central Halifax.

"I take pride in working here and on these trucks, especially knowing that we have a large black population," Prest said in an interview. "And it's nice, I think, to be able to represent them well knowing that I grew up here."

Of the Halifax department's 326 career firefighters, about 29 are female and 25 are black (male and female). However, other African-Nova Scotians serve within the ranks of the service's 805 volunteer firefighters.

A recent recruitment drive means three more black women will follow in Prest's footsteps and join the department as professional firefighters.

Before she joined the fire service eight years ago, Prest, then 34, worked in finance at a local hotel and also part-time serving snacks at the Halifax Metro Centre.

The mother of one had never considered a career in firefighting. That's until a friend, who was also a firefighter, encouraged her to go to an information session.

"I didn't really think of myself as a firefighter but at that time he had told me the department was looking to be recruiting and that they don't recruit very often and that it might be something that I might be interested in."

After a grueling five years of intense training, Prest now specializes in the most challenging rescues — high angles and confined spaces.

Outside of her 24-hour shifts, she volunteers as a mentor with Camp Courage, a Halifax-area summer camp that encourages girls to become police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

Face of fire service changing

Prest's captain, Pat Kline, said when he joined the department in 1987, all the firefighters were white men.

"That was 30 years ago and now we have several women, black, Chinese, different ethnicities again, and it's kind of really evolving the fire service," he said.

Besides Prest, Kline's crew of six includes an African-Canadian man, another woman and a French firefighter. Kline said the fire service is committed to increasing the number of firefighters from various ethnic backgrounds.

Past apology for black firefighters

In 2013, Halifax's fire chief apologized to black firefighters for failing to properly address the racism they faced on the job.

The Halifax Association of Black Firefighters filed a human rights complaint in 2008 alleging several instances of racism. As part of the human rights settlement, the department and municipality also agreed to review policies as a way to ensure an inclusive workplace.