This week Torontoist has been talking to Toronto Firefighters Julie Petruzzellis and Stacey Hannah about what it’s like to be a woman in a dangerous and demanding occupation—one where they are outnumbered 20-to-1 by men. You can read what they said in this special three-part feature, running every night until Thursday.
We spend a lot of time talking about the TTC: worrying that it’s going to be shut down by strike action, complaining that the buses don’t run on time, trading opinions on whether the drivers are saints or crotchety demons.
Recently though, the Queen Street fire put us in mind of another of the city’s essential services, one we don’t necessarily notice until something goes wrong. Toronto’s fire department is the largest in Canada and the fifth largest in North America, with some 3,000 people currently employed. Of that 3,000, only 150 are female.
We spoke to two women who weren’t put off by those numbers, by working 24-hour shifts, or by the prospect of walking into burning buildings: Firefighters Julie Petruzzellis and Stacey Hannah.
How long have you been in the service?
JP: I’ve been out of training for almost a year now.
SH: Eight years now. I came on in 2001.
What made you join? Did you always want to be a firefighter?
JP: It was something I thought about when I was a teenager, sort of in passing. I didn’t know that women were actually on the job, and so it was something I thought about but didn’t think about seriously. I started one career, doing non-profit work. I did legal education program development for youth. I did some work with the shelter system, which was all very interesting, but I couldn’t picture myself doing that for ever. This seemed like something that would more tangibly help people somehow.
SH: I had a friend whose boyfriend was a firefighter, and at the time I was doing secretarial work—which I hated—and we started talking about the job and what he did, and the more we had conversations, I found myself becoming more and more interested. So I ended up going to Seneca and taking some courses to confirm that I would enjoy it, and I did. And I just kept pursuing it at that point. It’s mentally and physically different for me each day, which is important.
It seems that female firefighters are very much in the minority. Is that something you’re aware of day-to-day?
JP: Oh yeah…I went through my training about a year and a half ago, and in my class there were 40 people and 10 of the 40 were women, and it was the largest class of women they’d had ever, so that was a pretty big deal. So you know, you’re aware of it, but on my shift in this district there are about six or seven women that I see fairly regularly. There are enough women that we have a presence.
Do you think your experience of the fire service is different from a male firefighter’s?
SH: It would have to be necessarily, I think. It didn’t occur to me originally that that would be a job option, that’s for sure. Then when it did, it didn’t seem that odd—the only thing I would say that is odd is just the numbers right now. But again, I think that’s primarily due to a lot of women not considering it, and secondly not being interested. I have a lot of female friends who think it’s interesting that I do it, and have no desire to do this whatsoever. Which is fair—it’s like any job.
Photos by John Beebe.