No woman has ever worked as a full-time firefighter for the Whitehorse fire department.
Twenty-four-year-old Kiara Adams plans to change that.
Currently working as a volunteer firefighter with the department, Adams is biding her time and racking up training and experience until a coveted position opens up at the department.
Despite her young age, Adams has quite a bit of firefighting experience.
She got into the business of fighting fires when she was just 15 by hanging around the Mount Lorne fire station, where her father was a volunteer.
“I was just a gofer, running around the station and helping out where I could,” she said.
Adams became a volunteer at Mount Lorne when she turned 16. At the time she was also a serious dogmusher and went to try the Yukon Quest twice.
But it was her quest for firefighting that she decided to pursue in the end.
And it required a lot of sacrifice along the way.
This past summer Adams gave up a comfortable full-time job as an optician to work construction.
And it wasn’t because she got sick of glasses or longed to swing a hammer.
She wanted to learn about construction to help her fight fires, she said.
“I wanted to see how a house is put together, find out where its strengths and weaknesses are.”
Should she ever get stuck in a burning building and have to self-rescue, she wanted to know how best to escape.
It felt strange leaving her full-time job, she said. “But in the long run – maybe five or 10 years down the line – it will have been the right thing to do.”
And her training hasn’t stopped there.
Adams recently paid her own way down to Salt Lake City to do a course in airport rescue.
Her father, whom she followed into the firefighting business, recently retired as the captain of the airport fire department.
She wouldn’t mind working full-time at the airport but for now Adams has her sights set on the Whitehorse department.
She’s been volunteering with the city for the last couple of years.
This involves calling a 1-800 number to check herself in and out of service.
Volunteers have to put in a minimum of 100 on-call hours per month. Once on call, volunteers wear a beeper and can be called into the station at one time.
On Tuesday night, Adams got a call shortly after midnight and another at 2:30 a.m.
There can be up to three or four calls when working the night shift, she said.
Then you can go three or four nights with no calls at all.
Volunteers aren’t always dispatched to the scene. But whenever the trucks roll out, volunteers come into the station to fill in, just in case another call comes in.
Adams has missed a number of big fires and rescues recently.
She was in the U.K. during the Canada Games Centre fire, she said, with a little regret in her voice.
And she also missed the “great chairlift rescue” at Mt. Sima last winter.
“The hardest I’ve ever experienced was at Whitehorse Copper,” she said.
“It was a chimney fire that turned into an attic fire. It took 13 hours to put out.”
The volunteers also have weekly courses where they brush up on their skills, learning a myriad of things from confined space rescues to ice rescues.
The Whitehorse fire department currently has 20 full-time fire fighters and approximately 30 volunteer fire fighters.
There are a couple of full-time positions that are going to be posted soon, said Adams.
The fire department fills vacancies for full-time positions from its volunteer ranks.
And to fill those diminishing ranks, the department will be holding a volunteer firefighter recruitment this January.
The selection process requires an aptitude test as well as physical fitness testing.
Recruits are required to climb one of the truck ladders to prove they don’t have a problem with heights. They are also timed in a sort of obstacle course, known as the Firefighter Combat Challenge. In full turn-out gear, with a heavy oxygen tank on their back, recruits have to carry a coiled hose up four flights of stairs. At the top, they have to hoist another hefty hose up by rope. They then advance a fully charged hose, do a forcible entry simulation with a sledge hammer and drag Randy, the rescue dummy, across the station.
Randy, whom Adams speaks of as a former enemy, weighs as much as a full-grown man.
“I was barely strong enough to do it when I tried out two years ago,” she said.
That’s no longer a problem. Adams now trains four to five days a week, doing both weight training and cardio, and can now more than handle Randy.
Adams can do the challenge in three minutes and 30 seconds.
That’ pretty fast for a woman’s time.
But Adams isn’t the type of young woman who is satisfied with that.
“Regardless of age or gender, I think everyone should have an equal opportunity,” she said.
“I obviously have to work to have the same upper body strength. But being small can be an advantage – in confined spaces and when hanging off of ropes.
“You don’t have to be this big bulky muscle man to fight fires.”
Tryouts for new volunteer firefighters will be held Jan. 14 and 22 at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Contact Chris Oke at firstname.lastname@example.org