Shirley Benson has the distinction of being the first female in Western Canada to be hired as a full-time firefighter, joining Edmonton Fire Rescue Services in July 1988. We had the privilege of interviewing the veteran firefighter to discuss her experience in the fire service in Edmonton. Check it out below.
ER: Tell us a little about your experience in the fire service.
SB: The first thing I want to say is there is no such thing as female firefighters, only firefighters who are female. There was no line on the application that said I was applying to be a female firefighter. I applied to be a firefighter and I think that is important in not stigmatizing us as separate or different. Equality starts when we see ourselves as equals.
I was the sole woman on my department for 9 years before other women were hired. Our numbers have never been that high on the floor in operations (hovers around 1%) but Dispatch and Fire Suppression enjoy a higher ratio.
ER: What were the main challenges you faced as a woman in the fire service?
SB: As far as challenges, my experiences weren’t that different from anybody else who was new to the job. You had to learn what the expectations were, how to conduct yourself with your co workers, understand rank and chain of command, etc. The only thing that I could say where my experience differed was having the issued clothing and gear fit. The struggle was real lol! It’s nice to see that in my last year on the job, our stores started sourcing uniforms that were gender appropriate. I didn’t get to benefit from it but all the following women will and that’s how this job works. We make it better for the people who come after us.
ER: What is your advice for anyone who would like to become firefighters?
SB: My advice to anyone interested in this as a career is investigate the department you are applying to for the requirements, do a ride along and then set about making yourself the strongest candidate possible. The job will not be easy to get on and it is because like in life, if it is worthwhile and rewarding , it requires work plain and simple.
ER: What is your favorite thing about being a first responder?
SB: There are two things I loved about the job. The people and environment I worked in (at the station, on scene, in the community) and that every day you never none what you were going to be doing. I loved the unpredictability!
ER: Do you have a favorite piece of general leadership advice to share?
SB: My piece of advice for those in the job is that your training and credibility to become an officer starts on your first day on the job. Who you were and what you did as a firefighter dictates how you will be received as an officer. So put the work in. Learn, listen and pull your weight. It is up to you.