Peace Arch News reporter Tracy Holmes carries a heavy rolled-up fire hose up several flights of stairs.

Feeling the burn

Surrey Fire Services puts women to the test with physical challenges



When it comes to firefighting, the number of women on the job falls far behind that of men. In Surrey, only two per cent of the individuals responding to calls throughout the city are of the female variety.

Officials say part of the challenge for women is in the physical testing – a standard they can’t raise the bar on.

In an effort to encourage more women to consider the career, Surrey Fire Services last week invited women to try the same tests they’d have to face in applying for a career with the department.

Reporter Tracy Holmes accepted the challenge, and gained new perspective…

‘Bring a bottle of water – you might sweat a bit.”

Such was the advice of Surrey Fire Services’ Tim Dykeman, days before opening the department’s 64 Avenue training centre to prospective firefighters – and one reporter – interested in going through the paces of the department’s physical test last week.

“Some of these are sort of… intense on the upper body.”

The truth of the statement – which referred, of course, to the various tasks included in the testing – was realized in short order by those who took up the offer, at least one of whom (you guessed it, the reporter) has since realized said muscles are, in fact, sadly lacking as far as firefighter standards are concerned. Let’s just say in the days after partaking, lifting anything above her head was slightly more challenging than usual, particularly when using the right side… or moving, for that matter.

Fortunately, other participants with their eye on the career bridged the gap to impressiveness, not only in strength and determination, but in sheer enthusiasm for the task.

“I can’t imagine a better job, helping people everyday,” said one, as he waited to take a crack at hauling a 50-pound roll of fire hose up, hand-over-hand, about four storeys.

“I’m really excited to see what I’m capable of,” said Rosemary Kelly, as she fearlessly eyed the sled-drag station, in which participants had to drag a 190-pound sled of equipment 100 feet.

Open to anyone, but devised with women in mind – the physical component of the hiring process tends to be more trying for women than men, Dykeman said – the afternoon was a chance for potential candidates to learn where their weaknesses are.

Participants cycled through seven stations. In addition to the hose haul and sled-pull, they had to drag a 175-pound ‘victim’ 50 feet, under barricades; raise and lower a 35-foot ladder twice; carry a 150-foot bundle of fire hose (approximately 55 pounds) over the shoulder up and down several flights of stairs; carry a 45-pound hydrant kit in one hand while walking across the rungs of a 14-foot ladder; and, carry a 100-foot roll of hose from the bumper of a fire truck, out 50 feet and back, returning the hose to the bumper.

Thankfully – from this writer’s perspective, anyway – two stations that are part of the actual testing were not included: one that checks for claustrophobia, and another that tests for fear of heights by having individuals climb a 90-foot ladder. The latter was a daunting thought for someone who, much to the amusement of nearby children, recently couldn’t bring herself to step off a five-metre diving board…

As for the other stations, I found the victim drag and the stair climb the easiest – but not easy. I’ll attribute my inability to budge the 190-pound sled even slightly to a hesitation to over-exert myself, given a minor concussion suffered in May. At least that’s the story I’m telling.

All of the stations are designed to assess attributes such as dexterity, balance, endurance, leg power, respiratory fitness, agility and strength – areas firefighters must be proficient in.

And as in the job itself, when it comes time for the real test, there is no room for leeway on account of gender, or anything else, Dykeman said.

“It’s tough and we know it’s tough,” he said, after watching Kelly take on the ladder raise, one of the more challenging stations.

“Unfortunately, we can’t really lower those standards because the job requires us to do pretty much everything we’re simulating here today.”

Kelly, a 20-year-old Surrey resident, came out with an aim to benchmarking where she is at physically. She hasn’t applied for a career firefighting position yet, but she’s determined to make the grade when the time comes.

“My mind’s set. I just gotta work out to the max,” she said. “I’m really excited to see what I’m capable of.”

Unlike this reporter, Kelly was capable of hauling that 190-pound sled.

As was Trish Douglas. The 29-year-old is hoping to start courses at the Justice Institute in January. She initially had her eye on a career with the RCMP, but said she was inspired to change directions by her dad’s 30-year love of firefighting.

Douglas said the trial run gave her a good sense of what she needed to work on – the upward hose haul was a challenge for the petite blond – particularly leading up to the Candidate Physical Aptitude Test she’s scheduled to take Oct. 20.

But just like all of the women who turned out that Oct. 11 afternoon, she’s determined.

“Just to help people is pretty amazing,” Douglas added. “I think it would be quite a career choice for a lifetime.”

Dykeman – noting the afternoon brought a few “happy surprises” as far as abilities seen – said he hopes to offer similar dry runs four times a year.

Next time, this reporter will likely just watch.

For more on a career with the Surrey Fire Service, visit www.surrey.ca/fireservice or email Dykeman at TDDykeman@surrey.ca

 

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