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, concluding today.
Julie Petruzzellis with other members of her squad.
Can you share a story from a shift that sticks out in your memory?
SH: I remember that one time we had a wind storm that had culminated in hail and some really bizarre weather, and we didn’t go back to the hall—we were just doing dispatch all night continually, to either wires down and all this other kind of stuff, and at one point we got this call for a tree on fire. These power lines had fallen across a tree and had ignited it, but it was the most incredible thing—it was like this fiber optic tree. It was gorgeous. You could see electricity travelling along the branches and catching fire, so it was just this completely illuminated tree, and we couldn’t do anything until Hydro got there, so we were just watching this tree, and I was like, “Wow, I don’t think I’d ever have seen this in any other circumstance.”
JP: I guess my first day, it was just so overwhelming. There were over a hundred firefighters there and I don’t know how many trucks, and we went there well after things had gotten under way, so when we drove up, the streets were closed off and it was just walls of fire trucks. We were well away from the fire because you couldn’t get close, and walking down this wall of high rises, and it was strangely quiet because you didn’t have your regular street traffic. Smoke was sort of wafting through. And I hadn’t met anyone, and I was so nervous because I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself and of course I did—I went in without my gloves on or something. It was just totally surreal, the sounds were surreal, the sights were surreal, it was very very strange.
Were either of you at the Queen Street Fire?
JP: No, it was during our larger time off. We went there a few days after to do fire watch.
SH: I think it was the day after. Because I was going to meet a friend and she called me and said, “I don’t think you’re going to make it out.”
JP: But it’s always sad to miss a fire, because that’s when you really get to put so much of your training into use. You know, we train here and sort of simulate things, but there’s nothing that’s actually like it. But that was a really cold day, cold and miserable.
What’s the day-to-day on the fire service like? Do you spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for something to happen?
SH: You can constructively use that time. There’s an agenda that sort of dictates the run of our day. It’s kind of like home—once your chores are done, if you choose you can sit and read a book, you can do other things. I find it a lot like being at home.
Is it scary?
SH: Sure. I think I’d be nervous if I wasn’t scared, I think I would question my judgement. It’s good to be a little scared, it keeps you thinking.
What don’t you enjoy so much about the work?
JP: For me, I find the shift work hard. I know I never wanted to work a 9-5 job—I love doing shift work—but at the same time I have a young son, and it can be hard. It makes for a long day if you can’t go home and sleep.
SH: I find the same thing. It’s an odd thing too, your weeks never coincide with anybody else’s because it stops functioning as a Monday-Friday time frame for yourself, so I can lose days. When you try to get things together with family and friends, they’re like, “Well it’s the weekend!” What does that mean? My Monday is their weekend.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
SH: Doing things that were not necessarily things that ever came easily to me, and finding that you can get a very good level of understanding of what you’re doing, and being able to function well with people and knowing you’re able to do that kind of work. I enjoy that.
JP: I still find some satisfaction in doing something that’s a fairly non-traditional female job. I enjoy the medical calls too—they’re more than 50% of what we do. I still think that very basic thing of helping a person who’s having a really bad day is nice. You run into the paramedics later and you can ask them how someone’s doing… It sounds totally cheesy, but it’s just nice to be helpful.
Photos by John Beebe