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’re outnumbered 20-to-1 by men. You can read what they said in this special three-part feature, running every night until Thursday.
Do you remember your first fire?
SH: I didn’t get one right of the hob. I got one on Russell Hill Road, which was a really big fire…also the Danforth Hardware Store that went off on Christmas Eve, which was interesting because it was piggybacked the next day with an apartment fire. I remember distinctly because I was really tired.
Do you think the physical requirement is less achievable for women?
SH: It’s less naturally achievable, I would say. That’s not necessarily true…you know what, that’s not true. There’s a lot of women who are interested in sports and do have a very athletic background. I don’t think it’s unattainable, I just think the type of physical requirements for this job are different even than sports. You have to realize that technically you’re going to have to approach it much differently than a man would. Everyone wants to say that everything’s equal, but men are on average stronger. There’s nothing wrong with that; that just means, I think, as a woman, you have to figure out the safest and most sensible way to approach weight and lifting things.
Do you socialize with the male firefighters outside of work?
JP: Yeah, we do. We just switched to a 24-hour shift a few years ago, so just before I got on the job…my sense is from the guys that there was more socializing before that—you could go out for a drink after work, it was easier to get together for team sports. But we go out probably once a month and we help each other. One guy’s doing home renovations and a bunch of us came over to help him out. And I just moved, and they helped me out. So we see each other.
I know not all of what you do is going into huge fires, but would you say it’s a dangerous occupation?
SH: All of it’s dangerous. You’re right, it varies on the level of what’s going on and how scaled up the call is, but there’s always stuff to be aware of. Not just in terms of the nature of the call, but health issues that are easier to miss—cancers that are on the job. The training gets you thinking all the time.
What kind of shifts do you work?
JP: It’s 24 hours, so 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the next day, and it works on a four-week rotation, approximately seven or eight days a month.
SH: We always have 24 off in between.
That sounds really demanding.
SH: Yeah, it’s a certain type of stress, that’s for sure. Even when you’re not doing something because you’re waiting.
JP: And I think with shift work, it’s sort of trying to be alert in the middle of the night and making sure you’re making the right decisions—there’s a certain amount of stress and exhaustion that goes with that. That’s hard. But it’s a lot of fun, because you’re with people for such a long period of time, you get to know them well, you’re sharing all your meals, sharing all your, sort of, day-to-day activities.
What are the smaller things you get called to?
JP: Cooking fires, medical, lots of medical calls.
SH: The other aspect is hazardous materials calls, decontamination, carbon monoxide calls, funny odors.
Do you get a lot of false alarms?
How often do you get called in to a serious fire?
JP: It goes in cycles. For instance, my very first day on the trucks after training we had a big fire, which was great for me, it was totally fun and interesting and a bit overwhelming, and the guys kept saying, “It’s not like this every day, it’s not like this every day.” And for about the first month we had a few fairly big fires, and then for a year it’s been pretty quiet, so it just comes in waves and there’s no real rhyme or reason to it.
Do you find people are surprised when you tell them what you do?
JP: The three-year-olds and the 40-year-olds.
Photos by John Beebe.