Sas - Firefighter / Kaiwhawhai Ahi

Having never worked with women, it’s a massive change for the men who work here. I don’t understand male language as well as I understand female language, so it’s kind of like operating in a foreign work environment.

I have to translate. I think, right, is there anything here that might prove difficult? I’ll run through scenarios in my mind. If they do this, I’ll do this. If this happens, I’ll react in this way. It gives me a bit of a heads up. It means that they can’t rattle me as much and I won’t lose my cool.

They’re constantly testing you. It’s their way of making sure I’m going to cope when we have a fire to go to and lives are on the line. Without warning, we’re put under extreme pressure. They poke and prod and they do it to everyone.

If they’re not making fun of you, you know you’re on the way out. That’s when you know there’s something seriously wrong. It’s a bit like that in the military or at an all boys school. I think it’s partly because when push comes to shove, they want to know you’re solid.

I think I’ve done well. The feedback I get from the men is that they are comfortable working with me. They’ll turn around and say, “We’re not sure about females in the fire service, Sas, but if we have to have them, you’re all right.” It’s a bit of a back handed one, but it’s about as good as it gets at the moment.

Most women who enter the service will react in three different ways. The first type play on the fact they’re female. We’ve had a few of those. They flirt and play on their femininity. Or you get the opposite. The ones who become very, very masculine. That’s definitely what I did early on. The third type of women is awesome to behold. She is self confident and assertive and knows exactly what and who she is. I regret not being like that initially. I used to think that I had something to prove. I always had to be better, stronger, smarter and faster. Over time, I’ve learnt to be comfortable with myself. I’m happy with that.

These days, more and more women are joining the service. It’s really interesting to notice that most now fit the third mould. I’m pleased. The younger guys are more accepting now too. They’ve grown up seeing women in different jobs, so it’s normal for them. Whereas with the older guys, some have never seen a woman in the workplace, apart from the receptionist.

I can understand it. Physiologically women are at a disadvantage. From the waist down we’ve got 50% less muscle mass. Most of the guys are physically more powerful than I am. On a good day, I weigh 68 kilograms and I’m working with men that weigh 140 kilos. He’s looking at me and my little white arms thinking, is she going to be able to get me out of this fire? That’s the bottom line. I think the same way too. When I climb into the back of a fire truck and a woman is sitting beside me, I eye her up and down and think, can she do this? Women in the service can be extremely critical of each other. There’s a standard that each firefighter has to meet and that’s the bottom line.

The best part of my job is the rush. Fighting a fire is awesome. You’re testing yourself under all sorts of pressure - physical pressure, mental pressure. Every two years we do a physical competency test. All fire stations either have a gym or membership to a local gym. You get paid to work out! So much of the job requires you to be physically strong.

Most firefighting - the hard stuff - is short and sharp. You’ve got 15 minutes of dead hard work then everyone should be out of the building. I decided to move up the ranks because that’s the part I enjoy - making decisions under pressure.

I’m a station officer. When you first sign up, you join as a recruit firefighter - that’s the person that sits in the back of the truck. They do all the internal fire fighting. They’re your grunters. After that, you can apply to become a driver, which means you not only drive the fire engines but also operate the pumps. And after that, you can study to become a station officer - they have more authority. I know other female officers, but the numbers haven’t risen much over the years.

A while ago, they had a big drive to try and get more females in the fire service. The first to join was in 1988, just after they’d changed the official title from ‘fireman’ to ‘firefighter’. Sometimes I still get called a fireman by the older guys. There are four female firefighters in Christchurch including me. One has just come off maternity leave, one is a recruit and  the other is a driver. They all want to make their way up the food chain.

The other side of the service is the community work - that’s the best thing about working with these guys. They can be so brutal in their own social environment; they might be sexist, racist and ageist - any ‘ist’, really - then they’ll go to help a little old lady who has crashed her car. They will be like her family. They will be awesome to her.

I think most of the firefighters here just want to help people. I’ve seen them mopping someone’s kitchen after a fire so they can come back to a clean home. It’s the stuff they don’t have to do, but they do it because they want to make people’s lives easier.

That’s the joy of the fire service. Everyone’s pleased to see you and you get to help and make a difference. Cats up trees, kids caught in a lift, fingers down a sink. Who do you call? You call us and we’ll come.

If you’re young and fresh out of school I personally don’t think it would be good idea to join the fire service. It might be better if you have a few years under your belt first. Most people need some time to pick a career.

If you think the job is for you after that, then there are many things you can do to build up to it. Your work and social history just has to prove you’re a team player, that you’re competent and dynamic. Do you play for a sports team? What sort of community service work have you done? All those sorts of things are important and demonstrate character.

I’ve got two daughters who are 15 and 16 years old. I’ve made sure they know how to use tools so they can be independent. It’s more of a life skill than anything else. So much of the cliché feminine side of things is either cooking, serving others, or general helplessness. Your husband should check your oil in your car and if you have a flat tyre you should wait until someone helps you. I want to teach my daughters these skills, and then they have a choice in the matter.

At the end of the day, you need to focus on the similarities as opposed to the differences. I have thought in the past, did I get this job because I’m good, or did they pick me because I’m female?

Did I get this promotion because I deserve it, or did I get it because I’m a woman? Maybe that’s out of my hands, but I own how well I do my job. Women in these kinds of male dominated industries are normally exceptional. They try really, really hard. We only make up three percent of the fire service, but in actual fact, females stand a 50% chance of being a top recruit because they work so bloody hard.

When I first got made station officer I had the oldest, cruisiest crew I could have hoped for. I said, “Look, please do not give me advice early on. If I’m struggling, I’ll ask you. I need to take my own time to learn and get a feel for what I’m doing.” They did exactly that. They didn’t take the piss. They were so professional. They could have made my life difficult, but they chose to make it easy.

That was when I realised I was part of the team. That was the best part. It almost brought me to tears. I started out as a foreigner and they accepted me.

How do I get into this career?

Getting into the fire service is fairly straight forward because there is only one employer here - the New Zealand Fire Service:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about being a fire fighter. Their 'How to enter the job' section has a lot of really good info.

- Another idea is to contact your local fire station and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some great online resources on how to approach this.