'You can't be what you can't see': 25 years later, female firefighters still few among men

Firefighters say a lot has changed since women joined their ranks. But they also say more needs to be done so other women can see themselves in the profession.

Programs like Camp Ignite aim to increase visibility of women on the job

Nancy Innis, née Hieltjes, was one of two women to become the Lower Mainland's first female firefighters in 1992. (CBC)

Nancy Innis was a 26-year-old student in need of a career when she saw the Surrey Fire Department's recruitment flyers at Simon Fraser University. 

"I thought, wow, that sounds like a pretty cool job," Innis said.

"I was kind of more into the physical sort of thing. I didn't really want to be in an office or a lab."

It was 25 years ago, and Innis was playing and coaching basketball at SFU. She didn't yet know that she would be one of two women to become the first female firefighters in the Lower Mainland.  

"I was actually quite surprised when I learned that there weren't any women firefighters. Like, it was 1992," she said.

"I thought it would be the same as RCMP — that there would be women."

When she found out there weren't any others like her, she decided to apply anyway.

Nancy Innis still works for the Surrey Fire Department, 25 years after she first joined. (Nancy Innis)

Small number across the province

Today, Innis is 51 and she still works for Surrey — now as a Fire Suppression Captain.

Despite it being what she calls a great career, she's one of only 13 women firefighters out of her 400 co-workers in the city. 

Across the province, that number only jumps to about 80 women working as full-time, paid firefighters. 

Firefighters say a lot has changed since women like Innis first joined their ranks. But they also say more needs to be done to increase visibility so other women see themselves in the profession.

Innis says she enjoyed the three months of grueling training she went through with the group of 15 other recruits she joined. Isabel Hepner was the only other woman with her on the team. 

Nancy Innis and Isabel Hepner were the Lower Mainland's first two women firefighters. 2:09

They were expected to do all of the same drills and meet all the same expectations as their male counterparts. And Innis says that remains true in most departments today. 

While most of her male colleagues didn't take any issue with her joining their ranks, there were a few who did. 

But Innis says any issues evaporated up as soon as she showed she could do all the same tasks as the men.

'There are just some real idiots'

In 2015, a CBC the fifth estate investigation revealed how some female firefighters faced bullying and sexual harassment on the job. 

Innis says that while that wasn't the case for her, she has heard about similar mistreatment in other departments. 

"I think it's horrible," she said. "But I think there are just some real idiots around, you know, same like any jobs."

Jennifer Dawkins, a firefighter and acting lieutenant with the Vancouver Fire Deparment, agrees that a lot has changed since she started in the profession 17 years ago. 

"It's a different world than it was when I started. I'm not going to lie — it wasn't easy when I was younger," Dawkins said. "Culturally, we've come light years." 

'It just doesn't click'

Dawkins, 45, is working to recruit more women into the job, and increasing the visibility of the women who are already working as firefighters is a key part of her strategy.

"There's still very few [women] because you can't be what you can't see," she said.  

"It's just something that people don't think about. Because if all you see is the white male in the firetruck, it just doesn't click."

In addition to her job, Dawkins is the director of Camp Ignite, a firefighter mentorship program for girls in grades 11 and 12. The program has been running for seven years, with about 20 girls going through it each year.

About 20 girls go through the Camp Ignite program each year. (Jennifer Dawkins)

Dawkins is also excited about a new recruitment session being offered at the Justice Institute of British Columbia next month — a hands-on firefighting workshop for women

Both Dawkins and Innis say their jobs require teams to work closely together to solve problems and do lots of different kinds of work. 

Ultimately, they say, having a more diverse workforce is a benefit.