First responder camp brings more diverse recruits to the field
By Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative reporterHeadlines News firefighters first responder women
Sept. 1, 2023, New Brunswick – “Report of an impaired driver at Exhibition Park,” police could be heard saying on the radio Thursday afternoon.
A police Jeep pulled up to the scene where a Mazda 3 sedan had hit a black Chevy Tahoe, followed by two fire trucks and an ambulance.
Twelve teenagers piled out of the emergency vehicles and began securing the scene, with teens in black Saint John Police Force hats escorting the impaired driver of the Mazda away, while a girl in full fire gear worked to remove the front door of the Tahoe with the Jaws of Life. A team of paramedics loaded its driver, who was alive and breathing, onto a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.
Then, the assembled crowd started clapping.
The live rescue demonstration on the Saint John Exhibition grounds came at the end of a four-day camp called Camp Courage, intended to give female and gender-diverse students aged 15-19 a look at what goes into the daily life of a first responder. The idea, first launched in Nova Scotia in 2006, was brought to New Brunswick by Saint John Fire Department recruiter Leah Robichaud as a way to bring a more diverse mix of recruits to firefighting.
“We started looking at ways to increase our diversity and increase the females in our applicant pool,” Robichaud said. “We wanted to have an opportunity for girls to come out and try the profession, get the gear on, get their hands on the tools.”
She said that with the nine months of training needed to join the department, applications at fire school were primarily male.
“We’re just finding that there aren’t many females or underrepresented groups that are even attending fire school,” she said. “We are working with the schools … to increase the number of females and underrepresented groups that are going to fire school, also looking at our recruitment practices and potentially changing our practice … to remove some barriers for people.”
The camp involved teens from New Brunswick, including Saint John and Fredericton, Nova Scotia and Vancouver, B.C. Participants spent a day learning about the different forces, then a day with the police force, with the fire department and then with Ambulance New Brunswick.
“It was a great opportunity to get our female first responders all together. As much as we all work together it’s more in emergency situations,” Robichaud said.
That was capped off with the demo, where the students worked alongside professionals, most of whom were female, as they walked through the stages of a mock scenario.
“I was impressed,” said Gwynn Boye, an operations manager for Ambulance New Brunswick covering Sussex, Hampton and St. Martins, who said they did “awesome.”
“We had gone through a few things with them, of course they were excited and a little worried about what was going on, and as soon as they heard the media was here the panic set in,” she said. “We told them to ignore everything around them and focus on what they were doing, and they did great.”
Boye said the change in diversity in paramedic teams has changed “night and day” in the 20 years since she signed up, saying the gender split is about 50-50 now. She had a background as a behaviour interventionist with the school board and had started a family, and was looking for something she could do alongside parenting, she said.
Deputy Police Chief Honey Dwyer said she had joined the military in 1986 and was in an all-female platoon, with female instructors. Then, when she joined the RCMP, she said she’d joined a platoon with only eight women, with only one other graduating. She said she’s seen more women gravitate towards it as a career.
“You weren’t seeing as many women staying as long in policing, but now, I’ve got almost 30 years of policing now,” she said. “Young girls looking, you can still be a mom, have it all and do the job.”
Tori Fairweather, a Grade 12 student at Fredericton High School, said she’s wanted to be a firefighter for four or five years, and had begun researching the profession after seeing shows featuring firefighters on TV.
Naturally, she slotted into the firefighting division at the camp.
“I learned a lot of things, but I think my favourite is how to break down the door,” she said, saying it felt real when she got the gear on. “I think it was one of the most engaging things. I woke up and I was so excited.”
Is fire school in her future?
“Oh yeah, absolutely.”
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