Ember Academy to train even more female firefighters in Yukon

Almost 1 in 4 Yukon firefighters are women - one of the highest rates in Canada - but the territory's fire department says there's room for more. 'In fact, to do this job better, we need more women in the fire service.'

12 students, 12 instructors, all women

A group of would-be Yukon firefighters are pulling weights, climbing ladders and crawling blindfolded through smoky buildings.

Just don't call them "firemen." 

The Ember Academy training camp is a Yukon government initiative run by the fire marshal's office and Protective Services. It's also strictly for women. 

Carla Penman has been a firefighter for 18 years. 'I think that women don't even know that this is an option for them. This job takes all kinds.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)
Carla Penman has been a firefighter for 18 years. 

On Tuesday, she guided recruits through drills, which included hooking up a hose to a fire hydrant, driving a fire truck, and extinguishing fires. Trainees also climbed the truck's ladder — a dizzying 30 metres above the concrete. 

"They're getting a taste of everything we do," she said. "They'll find out if they have a fear of heights."  

Penman said firefighting is hard work, but worth the commitment. 

"I think that women don't even know that this is an option for them," she said. "This job takes all kinds, and women have so much to offer," she said.

'They're women and they're moms'

Asked about her protective suit, Anna Rivard says 'it's quite warm. Boiling. The sun keeps you quite hot, but that's what you're supposed to be training for.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)
Amy Greer is one of the new trainees. She described herself as a former English teacher looking for something new. "I've been a stay-at-home mom for the last five years. I have three little kids, and it's a great opportunity for the future," she said.

"I think it's a challenge just putting the suit on, it's about [18 kilograms]. Yesterday, we did a run with the tanks on, the face masks and the oxygen. We've been climbing the ladders. When you take this off you're just covered in sweat," she said with a laugh. 

This year Ember Academy has 12 students. They're paired with 12 instructors, who are all women.  

"It's super inspirational," Greer said. "They're career firefighters, they're women and they're moms." 

Anna Rivard is another trainee who says she's moving to Alberta, where she would like to pursue firefighting. According to Rivard, one especially tough part of the week has been blindfolded teamwork. 

"We were trying to find someone in distress in a building. We were blindfolded and we used heat sensing cameras to find our way through a building. Working together and figuring out where you were without seeing," she said. 

'We can do a better job'

A wood fire is prepared for the next exercise. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
James Paterson, the territory's Deputy Fire Marshal, says 23 per cent of the territory's firefighting force are women. 

"We believe that's one the highest rates in Canada," said Paterson. "But the Fire Marshal and I believe we can do a better job and have a (more) integrated service."

Paterson says Ember Academy has been trying to recruit athletes. 

"Make no mistake about it: firefighting is a fight. It is a physical job, but absolutely women are very capable. In fact, to do this job better, we need more women in the fire service," he said. "Typically they're smaller, and they may be more agile. We have a lot of confined-space operations.

"Sometimes a smaller-stature person is better-suited for the job." 

This is the second year the Yukon government has offered Ember Academy as a free week-long camp. 

The course does not provide a degree, but Paterson says it's intended to interest women in firefighting — either as volunteers or career firefighters.