When a few hundred girls gather to play basketball at an all-Surrey tournament this week, Jess Franz will be there as an example of how they too can become firefighters one day.
More than a decade ago, Franz played in the Surrey Fire Fighters Senior Girls Goodwill Basketball Classic with the Elgin Park Orcas, during a multi-year championship run at the tourney. In 2008, the South Surrey school team went on to top all others in the province, and Franz later graduated to play university and pro hoops.
Today, in a full-circle story, Franz is a first-year firefighter in Surrey, and now helps organize the tournament that helped inspire her to take that career path.
“Until I played in this tournament 13 or 14 years ago, I never knew there were female firefighters,” Franz said.
“I’d never seen one, they weren’t on TV back then. It was kind of mind-blowing when I heard Nancy speak.”
That’s Nancy Innes, Surrey’s very first professional firefighter, who retired from the job last fall.
“She spoke to all of us at the tournament back then, and I’m sure over the course of her career she probably spoke to 20,000 girls, saying, ‘Hey, you should become firefighters,’” Franz recalled. “But in the three years I played in that basketball tournament, I was convinced she meant me, specifically – I knew she did,” she added with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and it was in my thoughts even when I went to play basketball in university and overseas. When I came back, my goal was to become a firefighter.”
In recent years, with workshops and other initiatives, Surrey Fire Service has encouraged more women to explore a career in firefighting. The Goodwill tournament, now in its 19th year, aims to promote diversity in the fire service and also gives bursaries to players who volunteer in the community, through Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society.
This year, 24 senior girls teams will play in the tourney, which began Monday (Jan. 6) and continues until Saturday. Schedules and other details are posted to surreyfirefighters.com/basketball.
“This is our biggest year in recent memory, in terms of the number of teams involved,” said Adam MacEwan, lead organizer of the tournament.
MacEwan said that on “finals” Saturday (Jan. 11), Franz will speak to the players, to reflect on a basketball career that took her from high school to Thompson Rivers, Capilano and also the University of Calgary, before she headed to Austria to play for that country’s national team (she has her citizenship), and also for a pro team in Vienna.
Upon her move back to Canada five years ago, Franz went to watch games at the Goodwill tournament in Surrey.
“I wanted to see if Nancy was there,” Franz recalled. “I coach basketball in the community, and I was watching a lot of those girls play, and yeah, there was Nancy. I remember asking her, ‘So hey, you probably don’t remember me but I remember you, and I really do want to become a firefighter, and what do I do?’ She took me under her wing and with open arms, and she told me what I needed to do and how to get there. The whole Surrey fire service was welcoming to me and I went out and got my qualifications, just checking off all those boxes.”
Franz said she was drawn to firefighting by the idea of teamwork and also being pushed mentally and physically.
“And there are some ups and downs with it, because you have physical testing and all these mental tests, too,” Franz added. “One year I got really sick and I wasn’t able to do the physical, and that put me back an entire year. But sometimes things work out the way they do, and that worked out fine and now I’m so happy to be here. But yeah, it’s been a long rollercoaster ride to get here.”
Last year, the 18th edition of the Goodwill Classic was won by the girls of Semiahmoo Secondary, in a 82-53 victory over Lord Tweedsmuir.
This week, the games will be played in the gyms at Lord Tweedsmuir and Salish secondary schools.
“What’s special about this tournament is it involves every team in Surrey, so it’s everyone coming together to play basketball,” Franz explained. “And with the firefighters involved, it really does get the girls thinking of that as a career – I’m an example of that, right. It’s a career that not enough girls give any thought to. I think nowadays girls see policing as an option for them, but firefighting is still seen as super male-dominant. But women, we can become firefighters and be able to do all the things required, including the physical part of the job.”
With Elgin Park back in the day, Franz said she had “one of the most amazing high school basketball careers,” followed by good times in university and Austria.
“Quite honestly, the game of basketball has given me and taught me so much, and then to have the game introduce me to my dream career, firefighting, it’s the craziest thing how it’s gone for me,” Franz said.
Down the road, once she’s more established in her new job, she’d like to get back into coaching in high schools, probably in the Whalley area.
“I got really involved in that community when I came back (from Austria), when I worked in the school district for five years,” Franz explained. “Doing something in the north (area of Surrey) interests me, to work there with the players and give them some coaching.”
As for firefighting, Innes retired from the Surrey service the year Franz was hired, and the timing is not lost on the rookie.
“For me, seeing someone like Nancy at the tournament kind of blew my mind, and she was so inspirational,” Franz added. “Seeing her just showed me that I could do it, too, that it was achievable for me, and so now for me to be here and in Nancy’s position, and be a former basketball player, I’m really excited to be part of it, to answer their questions and help them get into this as a career, too. Hopefully I can lead the way for basketball players like she did, and not just basketball players – all girls. For me, it’d just be really cool to help more girls who play in this tournament, like I did.”