Women wanted: Yarmouth fire department tries to attract recruits

At five feet tall with a thin frame, Danica Johnson isn't the first person many people would peg as a firefighter.

But that's a stigma, she said, built on a central misunderstanding about what the duties of a volunteer firefighter actually entail.

"Not everything is lifting 300-pound items," said Johnson, a volunteer firefighter for the past three years in Yarmouth, N.S.

At scene of a fire or accident, firefighters are needed to control traffic, refill air tanks and perform a myriad of other tasks that don't involve dragging someone out of a building. And Johnson's size comes in handy because she can fit into tight spots someone who is over six feet tall just can't.

"There's a lot of different roles in a fire department and we need all different statures, whether it's a female or a male," she said.

The Yarmouth Fire Department wants more women like Johnson to join its ranks. It's looking to bolster its overall numbers and bring in more women at the same time, according to Chief John Verrall.

It's hard to find people willing to commit to the training and on-call nature of the work — especially if both parents in a household are employed, said Verrall.  

The fire department wants to have 60 members, but at the moment it only has 33. The department is made up of 14 full-time firefighters; the rest are volunteers. In total, only four members are women. 

"Fire departments should reflect the communities they serve," said Verrall. "That actually gets us to do a better job if we actually, for example, have the same amount of females as we do males we'd be able to serve them better, serve the whole community." 

"If we get to 60 volunteers, we can actually do a better service because we will get more people on scene."        

Drop the jargon

Despite recruitment drives that emphasized the term "diversity," Verrall had little success attracting women. That is until he was told to drop the jargon and just tell the community he wanted more women to step forward. 

Verrall said since he changed his language more women have expressed interest in joining the department. But recruitment inquiries doubled in the last week after the four women with the fire department wrote a column in the local newspaper.  

"They basically got the word out and a lot more females are calling now."

If the department does get an influx of women, Verrall said things around the fire station will have to change.  

"We have to change our ways in some aspects — washroom facilities, as an example. What we say and the jokes and the stuff like that all have to be, you know, watched. The big thing is the facilities themselves and getting prepared for that."

Johnson, who began firefighting in Alberta before moving to Yarmouth, tried it as a way to stay active in the community and stay in shape. The longer she stuck with it the more she came to enjoy honing her skills.

She said she has never experienced any sexism or harassment at the Yarmouth department of at any fire department she's worked.  

"It's such a family environment," she said. "We all take care of each other and, you know, I don't see my sex being a matter of being divided out of the fire department, they don't treat me any differently."

If interested in volunteering, people should apply through the Town of Yarmouth's website.