Jamie MacPherson knows it takes a special kind of determination and toughness to be a female firefighter.
At an annual training weekend at 150 Mile House in 2007, MacPherson served as the “rescue doll.” She crawled down the hallway of a trailer converted into a confined space and waited for firefighters to come and drag her from the building. When each of them was done, rather than have someone go a second time her fellow firefighters suggested MacPherson give it a try.
“They decided to put the largest firefighter they could down the hallway. He was, with gear and his own personal weight, 300 pounds,” said MacPherson, who is now a 100 Mile firefighter. “So I crawled down the hallway to get to him and packaged him up and they were like ‘Ok move over so someone can help you drag him.’”
MacPherson refused, using her smaller size to her advantage. By getting her legs in front of him she was able to push and pull him all the way out. By the end, the other firefighters were cheering her on to complete it on her own.
“I got him out and I was exhausted and my captain at the time turned to my fire chief and said ‘if I go down in a fire I want you to send Jamie to pull me out. She may not be the biggest, she may not be the strongest, but she won’t quit’. That was one of the best compliments I ever got in the fire service, that they viewed me as an equal firefighter.”
MacPherson said she had always wanted to be a paramedic, not a firefighter, and had only joined the fire department to get some field experience as a first responder. When she was told that to go on call she’d have to become a firefighter she thought “I don’t want to fight fires, thanks. I’ll pass.” After a year with no real-life medical experience, however, she decided to give it a go.
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“I went to my first fire practice and they did the wall burn and it’s a pressure-fed, natural gas fire and it sounds like a jet taking off. I was just watching this, on my first practice and I was hooked,” MacPherson said.
Although she spent the last two years getting a full-time position with B.C. Ambulance, MacPherson has continued to be a firefighter, returning to the force this December.
Times have changed since she became a firefighter in 150 Mile 14 years ago, she added. When she started, she was one of only two women firefighters. By the time she left, there were 10. In 100 Mile she has seen the number of females grow from two to four.
Kim Simundson, who joined 100 Mile Fire Rescue a year ago, said she hasn’t noticed any difference in how women are treated on the force. Everyone at the fire hall is kind and helps each other equally and the only real difference between them is how women are built physically.
“Women are more driven now than I think we were before. Society didn’t allow us to fit into male roles and I think it is a lot more widely accepted now, so women are pushing themselves harder,” Simundson observed, noting her dad was a firefighter when she was a child. “When my dad was doing it there definitely wasn’t women there, it was very much a man’s deal.”
Now more women are becoming, or aspiring to become, chiefs, such as Lac La Hache’s Julie Machado, who has spent the last five years climbing the ranks to captain. A private care-aid by trade, Machado said she was attracted to Lac La Hache by its calm beauty and lakeside lifestyle.
“I just wanted to help the community, get to know more people and it’s fun driving fire trucks,” Machado laughed when asked why she joined up.
Machado said she has come to love being a firefighter as it helps her break out of her bubble and learn new things. As one of three captains, she is in charge of administrative work and safely organizing her 18 fellow firefighters while responding to a call. Working with her “fire family” is one of her favourite aspects of the job as well as being a jane-of-all-trades for fire rescue.
“I feel safer going up ladders. I don’t really like them but with my crew, I can do it no problem. At home? Not so much but I feel better when there’s a whole bunch of firefighters around watching my back.”
Machado says her team trusts one another and treats each other the same regardless of gender. She believes a mix of women and men makes for a good team.
While they can’t discuss actual calls, MacPherson said she loves how varied the calls are. The crews have responded to wildfires, structural fires, medical emergencies, rope rescue and auto extractions.
It’s similar to her work with B.C. Ambulance, she said, and something she thrives on. Not to mention the community events, which keep them connected with the public.
Simundson also enjoys the challenge and the chance to learn something new every day. A nurse at the 100 Mile District General Hospital, she got into firefighting as a way to give back to the community.
“As I got older and moved back into our community again, I wanted to volunteer with the fire halls but I was busy with full-time work, being a mom and school. So finally my life settled and my boyfriend Dave Dejounghe is on the hall so seeing him doing it motivated me to apply when my time freed up,” she said.
She said working as a member of a team is also rewarding.
“The greatest challenge I’ve found is learning all the equipment and the names for it because we call some items different in the medical field. Being small I have a hard time fitting the gear and a hard time reaching supplies, getting in and out of the trucks is a big step up for short legs,” she said. “I’ve learned to lift my legs a lot higher but for the most part, if it’s something I can’t reach, that’s the beauty of a team, someone else can reach it for me.”