By Ed Staskus
Bunker gear is what a firefighter wears, boots pants jacket, and more modern apparatus, like masks and breathing cylinders, to stay safe and be effective when responding to an emergency. It is also called turnout gear, which is what firefighters do, turning out when there’s an alarm. The protective clothing is triple-layered and fire resistant. It is sometimes stowed beside or under a firefighter’s bunk at the station.
It all weighs more than 50 pounds, and that’s before picking up an ax or an extinguisher. Two hundred-some years ago headgear was a felt cap meant to keep water out of your eyes. Today’s helmet, high-peaked with a long rear brim, was first introduced in the 1830s. The New York City luggage maker who designed it was also a volunteer fireman.
Fighting fires means a lot of stepping up and down bending crawling, as well as working with your arms both in front of and over your head. When a firefighter bends at the knee or waist they need added length in their pants and jacket to accommodate their movements. Although bunker gear isn’t necessarily oversized, it’s oversized for mobility’s sake.
When a firefighter is in full bunker gear it’s hard to tell if the reflective-striped all-suited-up hulk pulling hose off a truck is a man or a woman. If it’s the fire chief of North Rustico in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island doing the work, it’s a woman.
It is Alison Larkin. A member of the town’s fire department since she was 18-years-old, she is in charge of the 30-man-and-woman volunteer company.
Before being appointed fire chief in the spring of 2016, the 28-year-old Ms. Larkin was and remains a full-time paramedic with Island EMS, where she has worked for seven years. But, before becoming a professional lifesaver, after graduating from high school, she had to first apply to the paramedic program at PEI’s Holland College.
She didn’t get in.
“My high school marks were terrible,” she said. “I loved school, all my friends, but I did just enough to pass.”
Regrouping, she took Adult Education classes, upgrading her math, science, and English scores. “I had no problem working on my own,” she said. “Healthcare was something I wanted to do and my best friends weren’t around to influence me about going or not going to class.” In the meantime, she filled out an application and was accepted as a member of the North Rustico Fire Department.
There are more than 125,000 volunteer firefighters across Canada, most of them serving in countryside that can’t afford to staff a full-time career department. Volunteer firefighters date to the year 6 in the city of Rome.
North Rustico is a small town of fewer than 600 year-round residents on the central north shore of the province, on a natural harbor along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The National Park shoreline is a short walk from the harbor.
Although her family lives in the town of Rusticoville, her hometown is within a few miles driving on rising and falling rural roads of Rustico, Anglo Rustico, and South Rustico, as well as North Rustico. “I pretty much knew everyone in the department from being around here.” She spent her first year learning the ropes.
Alison’s plan was to bring her new marks and newfound experience in the fire department to bear in petitioning for admission to Holland College. “They save some seats in each course for people who have upgraded their marks,” she said. The next year she applied to the paramedic program again.
She didn’t get in.
She went to work at Lorne’s Snack Bar in North Rustico. “I waited tables, cooked, cleaned, everything. They had the best poutine and gravy in town.” Lorne’s was a stone’s throw from the Irving service station owned by her parents. “My dad does all the mechanics at the back and mom manages the front. You see a pretty lady walking around, that’s my mom.”
One day the following year her mother walked over to Lorne’s from the service station and dropped off a letter addressed to her. She slid the poutine she was making to the side. She opened the letter.
“I remember freaking out behind the counter,” she said. Alison Larkin had finally gotten into Holland College.
It’s when first and second chances haven’t played out that the third time’s a charm.
”I’m happy it took that long,” said Alison. “It can be a crazy job, seeing all the stuff you see. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. How do you help people when you have no life experience?”
When first responders get to where they’re going there’s no waiting. They’re always stepping into something that’s gone wrong. When stepping into the middle of some emergencies they hear see smell things that most people never do, and don’t want to. Their job is to help people, sometimes people whose lives are hanging in the balance.
“It’s stressful, very stressful” said Alison. “I don’t carry a lot of the calls with me. If you hold on to it, get personal with it, you’re never going to last. My brain just lets me do the call and let it go.”
It was after Alison Larkin prevailed and became a paramedic and found work that she was able to stay in the Land of Rustico, stay on the North Rustico Fire Department, and stay on Prince Edward Island. “It’s a beautiful place, a great place to be, but it’s hard to make a living.”
Recent data released by Statistics Canada suggests that PEI natives have been moving to other provinces in search of work at a rate not seen in 30 years. “Five thousand people in Prince Edward Island declare Prince Edward Island as their home, but work in Alberta,” said Workforce and Advanced Learning Minister Richard Brown.
“There‘s not a lot of work here, you can’t make any money,” said Alison “It’s hard to buy farms and lobster gear, it’s so expensive, so finding a good well-paying job was the biggest thing, definitely.”
In the meantime she became more involved with her town’s fire department. “I fell in love with the firefighting side of things, almost changed my career to it.” She trained at the PEI Firefighters School “I loved it, got right into it. I loved hanging around with the guys.” She trained in fire and search simulators, climbed real ladders, and hauled high-pressure hoses. She aced the question and answer test at the end.
The men and women sitting in a fire truck speeding to the scene of a calamity do one of the most physically demanding of all jobs. No emergency call they go on is ever the same, from chain sawing holes in a steep roof ventilating it to dragging someone out of something smoky hot dark on fire to safety.
The first fire Alison Larkin fought was her helping handle a hose cooling off a propane tank that was next to a burning building. “It was a total adrenaline rush. It’s not boring. Every day is different.” It takes steady nerves. Half-hour bottles of air can empty fast if you lose your composure.
“Not every woman can do it, but not every man can do it, either,” said Alison. “There are definitely people who are built for it, man or woman. It’s hard, but I can do it. I’ve only ever been pushed further by the guys.”
The first female firefighter, a young slave from New York City, was Molly Williams, described in 1815 “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” When Emma Vernell’s husband died in the line of duty in the 1920s, she took his place on Westside Hose Company #1, becoming the first firewoman officially recognized by New Jersey.
The first female career firefighter was hired by the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia in 1973. By the middle of the 1980s about 1% of all firefighters were women. Today more than 3% of them are women. On Prince Edward Island 65 of the approximately 1,000 firefighters are female, twice the national average. In 2016 Toronto Fire Services, the largest Canadian municipal fire department, made history when its top three graduates were women.
Alison Larkin made history when she was appointed fire chief.
“The job came up, so I put my name in,” she said. The chief who was stepping down recommended the stepping-stone of standing for deputy chief. “Why don’t you go for chief,” some of the members suggested. “If you’re going to help me, if I have your support, I will do it,” she said. The members voted her in and at a Committee of Council Meeting the town confirmed her appointment.
“The opportunity came up and I just took it.”
She is the first woman on Prince Edward Island to hold the post and one of only three women in the Maritimes who are fire chiefs. Making history is being who you are, not being your past history, not letting anything in your past keep you from doing something in the present.
“A woman fire chief fifty years ago? No, definitely not, but there are now,” said Alison. “I don’t know what changed. Maybe women decided, yeah, we can do it, and men decided, yeah, women can do it. Back then it would have been crazy. I think the culture has changed.”
Jane Ledwell of PEI’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women agrees, adding that Alsion Larkin is a “terrific role model. We are so thrilled to see she has been named PEI’s first female fire chief.”
After finishing her paramedic courses and finding work with Island EMS, Alison went back to PEI Firefighters School for more training. She is the first woman in the province to gain Level II accreditation and the next year was sought out to become a part-time instructor. “They really built up my confidence. I never thought I’d be teaching there.”
The North Rustico Fire Department is an all-volunteer force. Nobody gets paid, “I know a lot of people can’t understand that, but what we do we do for this community,” said Alison. Not everything that counts is just counting what’s in your wallet.
“We get calls to people’s homes on their worst day. That’s what we’re there for, to turn a bad situation into something manageable, try to make them feel a little bit better. The most rewarding part of the job is when someone thanks us, says we turned their crisis into not a crisis.”
The new fire chief has put a new emphasis on training. ”It’s a big thing. We’re always working on that.” The department meets every Tuesday night. One Tuesday is maintenance night on the rescue vehicle, the tanker truck, and the two fire trucks. Two of the Tuesday nights are devoted to training.
“It was more known as a boy’s club long ago, you come and hang out, when really now it’s more geared toward training, and doing a lot of work and making sure everyone knows what’s going on and what they’re doing.”
Safety is the cornerstone of firefighting. Although firefighters die at a rate barely greater than the rate for cashiers, when trouble comes it’s not a dollar bill paper cut, it’s a chain saw gone haywire. At the end of the day training is what keeps you from putting your life on the line. “You never want to put people into situations you feel they’re not trained for,” said Alison.
Just like cauliflower is just cabbage with a higher education, firefighters are just men and women who put their bunker pants on one leg at a time, except that before they’re even in their gear they know what to do next. Practice may not make perfect, but it makes getting it wrong less likely.
At the North Rustico fire station the department’s emphasis on training has gone the extra mile, extending to family pets. Atlantic Vet College recently schooled the members on animal first aid and rescue, reviewing facets from cardiac arrest to breathing distress.
One of the firefighters volunteered his unsuspecting dog as a guinea pig. “We found out how much oxygen we needed to turn the masks on to, what flow rate for what animal,” said Alison “They gave us pointers in how to go up to a scared dog or cat and get them to come to us.”
Besides getting everyone’s training up to speed, getting to where they have to go in a timely fashion is another goal she has set. “Our old trucks are just old. It’s time for new ones. After 25 years you need to upgrade your equipment.” Like roads and bridges, trucks don’t upgrade themselves. It takes someone to make it happen.
Although firefighters are faceless in their bunker suits and breathing masks, when Allison Larkin is off the truck and back at the North Rustico station after an emergency call, stripping off her gear, helmet pants jacket boots, there‘s no mistaking who she is.
She’s the firefighter with her toenails painted purple.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.