Female Firefighters in the Okanagan

Meet two of Okanagan’s very own female firefighters;

Issy Venables of Penticton and Allyson Reich of Vernon.

These courageous women opened up to Okanagan Woman about their lives and careers as first responder firefighters.

ISSY VENABLES was born and raised in Penticton, she is the youngest of three children. Issy describes herself as being a farm kid, who was always athletic and loved the outdoors. Upon graduating high school, Issy began to compete in freestyle snowboarding with Apex mountain being her home away from home. After a couple of years, she joined the development snowboard team for Burton and had a full sponsorship with Anon Googles and Gravis Footwear. After several cutting-edge years of competing and working within the snowboarding industry, Issy began to experience what she called a ‘burnout’, which in turn caused her to lose her passion for the extreme sport, so she decided it was time to move on and to pursue her next dream.

Growing up in the Okanagan, Issy witnessed a lot of wildfires, including the Garnet Fire in Penticton (1994). This left a strong impact on her and perhaps planted a seed for her future career as female firefighter. Issy also recalls a high school counsellor who suggested that she become a firefighter because of her vast athletic abilities, personable ways of interacting with peers and her outgoing witty personality. After some downtime and a lot of careful consideration, Issy began pursuing her dream career of becoming a female fire fighter. At the young age of 22, determined to get out of her comfort zone, she moved to the state of Texas to attend Texas A&M University where she acquired her first and second level certification.

Following her graduation from that academy, Issy returned home to the Okanagan and spent the next seven years working with the Ministry of Forest in the wildfire’s division. This involved living on a base in Princeton for three years and working with a unit crew of only twenty people. Issy says the crew travelled throughout BC attending larger scale fires that required a lot of manpower. She then spent four seasons with Penticton’s ‘Initial Attack’ crew, located near the Penticton Airport – these three person crews were often helicoptered into the forest to manage ‘fire starts’ where they were the first team on-site to tackle the initial stages of a fire and often extinguished fires before they became a larger hazard. Because Ministry of Forests fire crews are provincial resources, it enabled Issy to travel to other provinces like Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, to work on forest fires as needed.

Currently, at the age of 33, standing 5’10 and weighing 180 pounds, Issy works full-time for the Municipality of Penticton in a career structural setting, which specializes in extinguishing structure type fires. She works alongside 34 other career firefighters, who are often called in to support BC Ambulance and PEN SAR to access injured people in Skaha Bluffs Climbing area, as well as the Three Blind Mice Trail system and are also called to assist the Penticton Indian Band Fire Department. The crew members are actively involved in technical rescue training for both Ice Water Rescue and Swift Water Rescue. They also train and operate Rescue Watercraft specifically to work on Skaha Lake, Okanagan Lake and the Penticton River Channel.

Although no shift is ever the same, says Issy, there are a few tasks that are done daily; there’s a quick run down of the previous days’ encounters; dealing with any issues that may arise with equipment, testing and running of all apparatus (trucks), checking all the gear to make sure it is in working order and ready to respond to calls.

When not responding to calls, the crew takes part in fitness to help prime their bodies for the day of work ahead and burn off any extra stress or anxiety they might be feeling. Issy touches on the importance of checking-in with each crew member on shift and commented on how challenging this can be at times, “just trying to figure out all of the personalities that make up the staff and how to best support each other. The rest of the day usually consists of personal training, assisting new trainees and training as a department on gear that we don’t get to use regularly such as the time it takes to pull in and park a 30ft long water rescue craft to save time during an actual emergency.”

On a lighter note, Issy shared that she has a huge appetite and can often put the guys to shame with how much food she takes in during her shift. She often gets teased (playfully) for always being hungry and has even been found ransacking the kitchen in the middle the night. When asked what it’s like to work with a predominately male team, she reports that she feels right at home and enjoys the jokes shared amongst fellow crew members. Issy describes herself as being witty and has the guys laughing a lot with her come backs and radical sense of humour.

Issy loves being a firefighter and enjoys the balance her career offers between work and home. She notes that her schedule allows her to have time and freedom for other things that she enjoys, such as mountain biking, paddle boarding, gardening, cross country skiing and exploring the coastline. Issy also enjoys mentoring young women and has volunteered at several non-profit organizations which help empower young women and encourage them to remain active and healthy. This summer, Issy will take part in a four – day firefighting summer camp for 15 to 18 year-old girls, educating and proving to them that it is possible for this rewarding and amazing job to become a reality for them!

There are many people who pursue this career and give up because it’s too competitive, says Issy. She wants women to know that they can do it and, if they put their mind to it and persevere, anything is possible. Issy says her goals are “to continue to be the best that I can be, to make it through my career being healthy, beating the odds of occupational cancer, and to hopefully retire as a Captain.”

ALLYSON REICH, originally from White Rock, BC, grew up living next to a Volunteer Fire Chief, who used to say; “Allyson, you should consider firefighting as a career…they are starting to hire women and you are a tall, strong girl.” At the young age of 12, she was already 5’11 and still growing.

After finishing university, Allyson moved to Whistler and began to teach skiing, which then lead her to travel to Australia and New Zealand to teach skiing in the off seasons. Being an only child, her parents were not thrilled about her living half way across the world for six months out of the year, so they offered her an opportunity to start a small grocery store business in the tiny ski village of Sun Peaks, BC (just outside of Kamloops). In December of 1999, very soon after the store was up and running, she noticed the Fire Chief of the local volunteer department coming in to buy bread and milk. They got to talking and she remembers him saying: “…practices are Wednesday nights at 6pm…you should come by.”

After a few months of contemplation, Allyson finally mustered up enough courage to stop by the hall to check out her first practice. In April of 2001, at the age of 28, Allyson made what she calls “the best decision EVER” and joined the volunteer team. “Practice nights were filled with lots of drills and the learning curve was steep, but enjoyable – the guys were awesome and super welcoming.”

September 11, 2001 is a date that many of us will never forget. For Allyson and many other first responders, it was especially heart wrenching. This marked a pivotal moment for Allyson, who had a hard time convincing her mother that this was the ‘job’ she wanted to do.

Allyson recalls her first fire was October 27, 2001, at the Delta Sun Peaks Hotel, it was still under construction at the time. “The 226-room hotel was only one-third built, the rest was still in the framing stages. Shortly after midnight, the hotel caught fire and it took thirty-eight hours to put out. Speaking with one of the full-time firefighters from Kamloops that came to help our little department of 10 people, was when I truly fell in love with this job.”

Allyson was 30 years old when she applied for and was accepted into the Justice Institute of BC, Pre-Employment Firefighters Course (12-week program). She graduated on August 2, 2003. It took two years to the day, August 2, 2005 for Allyson to be hired full-time with the City of Vernon.

“I was the very first female firefighter hired in Vernon’s department

in their 125 years of operation.”

Standing 6’2 and weighing 195lbs, Allyson was one of the tallest people in the department. She comments: “Many of the guys had to look up at me to introduce themselves. FINALLY, I understood that my height and stature had a purpose and it felt great to belong.”

Allyson has been in the fire service now for over 19 years. She is happily married with two stepsons, 17 and 21. She also has an 8yr old Boxer dog named Jake. She talks about her family as being extremely understanding and compassionate especially when it comes to having to reschedule special celebrations such as birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas because she gets called away to work.

She fondly remembers a time in the early days when she needed to have 30 hours of experience with each apparatus under her belt; driving, pumping, putting up the aerial ladder, etc. “One morning, I was driving one of the engines along 27th street, the lights turned red, I brought the truck to a stop, the light turned green, so I accelerated, then the firefighter in the back started to giggle. I didn’t think much of it until the next few red lights when I would stop the truck and move forward on green, and he would start giggling again. The Captain sitting across from me, turns around to ask what’s so funny? The firefighters in the back say, not once, not twice, but THREE different times…people would look over at the engine, then do a double take as if they didn’t believe what they were seeing – was it really a woman driving the fire truck? What’s even funnier, about 12 years later, one of those firefighters sitting in the back of the truck is now my Captain sitting across from me, and as we drive along that same road, he starts to smile as we notice people are still pointing at - the woman driving the fire truck!”

Allyson says the need for physical strength goes without saying to be a firefighter. “The fire or emergency doesn’t care if you are male or female, you have to be strong enough to get the job done and done safely.

But, what I’m not sure people really know is just how mentally and emotionally

strong you have to be to endure a career’s worth of trauma and stress.

I’m far from an emotional Hercules, but my resilience has grown and I have come to understand the importance of asking for help and knowing when I need time to heal”.

Allyson describes a typical day on the job… “Day shifts start at 8am, but we try to get there early to relieve the night crew at 7:30. We rotate through positions/apparatus on a shiftly basis: one day I might be driving the Engine, the next day responsible for driving the rescue truck, the next night responsible for medical calls, etc. Suffice to say, it's never a dull day. On the first shift of the day, we have a morning meeting: The Captain and Chief(s) often join us to bring us up to speed on what's happened in the days we've been off. We work on a four day on/four day off schedule. We do chores in the morning and if we don't get any calls to that point, we do physical workouts. The afternoon is often training, or tours of the fire hall and we spend a great deal of time out in the community doing facility inspections. Keep in mind, that we often get called away from inspections to go to calls...anything from structure fires, fire alarms, medical calls, motor vehicle incidents, to cats in trees… and ducks in storm drains – we see it all! The day shifts are ten hours long and the night shifts are fourteen hours long.”

A few years ago, Allyson was put into an ‘acting in an Officer's role’ position. “Basically, when the Captain is on holidays, I'm in charge and when he's not on holidays, I'm a Lieutenant at our other station. It's not easy showing up to a scene that's in complete chaos: it's another thing to show up to that same scene and have all eyes on you looking to organize that chaos. I’m very fortunate to work with an incredible group of guys that love their job, as I do. They challenge me to be a better officer and that's a big responsibility because I don't ever want to let them down. I'm also a really emotional person, so some of the hard calls take their toll on me. I'm grateful to be a part of our CISM team (Critical Incident Stress Management) and to have strong relationships within our department and, to be able to ask for help. I am also incredibly fortunate to have a husband who provides me a safe place and a strong shoulder to cry on when it's needed. I couldn't do what I do without the love and support of my family and close friends...they're my glue!”

Allyson wants to continue to learn and grow and push the boundaries of her career. She is currently looking into going back to school to get her Master’s degree in Clinical Counselling so that she can work with Emergency Medical Responders that may be experiencing PTSD/OSD/CPTSD.

It was truly an honour to get to know both of these ladies and to tell their stories of their strength and determination to push their own limits, to break societal barriers and to become some of the Okanagan’s first ever hired female firefighters, serving families and communities in such an admirable way.

For all the women who ask themselves “Am I capable?” or “Can I REALLY achieve that?”, let these two ladies be a testament that you can do whatever you put your mind to. You can break the mold and change the rules. Reach for the sky and never give up on your goals. Never stop dreaming of what you can accomplish!

We also want to acknowledge the other female firefighters that we didn’t

manage to speak with who also serve in the Okanagan.

Thank you from all of us at OKW!

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