Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Dispatches: July 2013

Jennifer Grigg   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

While writing this column, my two daughters, age 12 and 13-and-a-half, and I were watching PVR-ed episodes of Chicago Fire.

While writing this column, my two daughters, age 12 and 13-and-a-half, and I were watching PVR-ed episodes of Chicago Fire. It was the second time that week the girls had launched a Chicago Fire marathon, and although I’ve seen most of the episodes at least once already, I didn’t mind watching them again, especially with my girls.

I’m thrilled there is a show that my kids and I can get into together, but I’m even more impressed that they are keen enough to question what they see on TV.

As we watch three firefighters enter a smoke-filled building, my younger daughter yells out, “They don’t even have their masks on!”

In another scene, my older daughter asked me if we have “those” meaning thermal imaging cameras.

Watching a show like Chicago Fire with my kids not only gives us the opportunity to spend time together, but also bridges the gap between what happens when I run out the door to a call and when I get back. It gives them a better understanding of what the job entails, why we do things the way we do, what certain tools are used for, and, quite likely, a better understanding of what to do if there ever were a fire.

“This is the best TV show ever,” one of the girls just said. I can’t argue with that. I’ve waited for a show like this since Third Watch.

Third Watch and Chicago Fire, Backdraft and Ladder 49. Firefighters (and their families, according to my 13-year-old who typed that while I wasn’t looking) love this stuff. Why? For my kids, they just think it’s cool. From my perspective, it’s the sense of connection. We all yearn for a sense of connection, whether it’s with family, co-workers, community or a greater cause. I’m betting most of the fire officers out there have heard of Abraham Maslow but Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be new to some younger firefighters, so I’ll explain it. Maslow’s hierarchy is a theory in psychology that was proposed in 1943 in Maslow’s paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow used the terms physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move.

The sense of belongingness is what fuels us as human beings, and being part of a group of people who give themselves to a greater purpose is what draws many of us to the fire service. It may start with a fascination with the world of fire fighting, but what sustains our involvement is the sense of community and service to others.

During the interview process with full-time fire departments, one of the questions often asked is “Why do you want to be a firefighter?” For me, it started when I was in public school and the church down the street burned down. I vividly recall standing there, watching the firefighters fight the fire, and saying to my friend, “That’s what I want to do someday.” After high school, I worked at a local alarm company that also dispatched for the local fire departments and the urge to join a fire department was reignited (pardon the pun). I took fire protection engineering at Seneca College and graduated with honours. I was one of only four females in a class of 70.

The irony of me taking any kind of engineering course wasn’t lost on me. And there were many discouraging moments, but what got me through more than once was watching Backdraft. As silly as that sounds, there was something in that movie that inspired me to keep at it, even when I so desperately wanted to give up.

Although I talked to many people about my dream of becoming a firefighter, I was often discouraged by the responses I received, which included, among others, “Women belong in the kitchen.” (Honestly, a volunteer fire chief told me that back in my early dispatch days. . . and those who know me know that I’m the last one who belongs in a kitchen!) Fortunately, after graduating from college and working back at the alarm company doing dispatch, I was lucky enough to find a fire chief who gave me encouragement. “You want to join this fire department, you get yourself an address up here.” And so I did. I found an apartment in the area, packed up everything and moved from Midland, Ont., to the big metropolis of Port Severn, Ont. Most people were stunned by my decision, but close friends and family understood.

It was my dream, whether it made sense to others or not.

That was in 1996. Over the years, I’ve had many very positive experiences and my share of difficult experiences with the fire department, but I have learned valuable life lessons along the way. My connection to the department has always remained. Even when I was away from the department for a few years following a divorce, the connection to that part of me was always there. It was a part of me, and eventually I found my way back to it.

So why is it that we watch the TV shows and the movies – sometimes multiple times? It’s that sense of connection. We can sit back in the safety of our homes and know that we’ve been there, done that. Maybe even saved a home or a life. And yet, we’re still us. Not actors, not heroes – just us.

Jennifer Mabee is a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario. She began her fire career with the Township of Georgian Bay in 1997 and became the department’s fire prevention officer in 2000 and a captain in 2003. She was a fire inspector with the City of Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services before taking time off to focus on family, and is excited to be back at it. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter at @jenmabee

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