by Helen Holt
When four St Andrews firefighters were riding in their truck towards an emergency, it took them 10 minutes to realise they were making history.
Apart from the driver, it was the brigade’s first all-female crew.
Of the St Andrews Fire Brigade’s muster of 16, five are women.
They are qualified firefighter Karen Fletcher, firefighters Ashley Tikitiki and Amy Phillips, recruit firefighter Lisa Grant and brigade support Janice Hurst.
Nationally, 20% of volunteer firefighters are women.
The four firefighters were the first to respond to a callout last month.
“It took us a while to notice that we had all four women firefighters,” Miss Tikitiki said.
“And then we were suddenly like ‘Oh yeah, this must be the first time’.”
Mrs Fletcher has been in the brigade for 14 years, and said gender had never been a barrier.
“They have always been inclusive. We all know each other’s strengths, and we all get stuck in and help when we attend an emergency,” Mrs Fletcher said.
“We have had quite a few females .. . throughout the years, as people move in and out of the town.”
Heavy lifting had never been an issue.
“I notice when I give training that the boys and girls will lift heavy things differently. The boys will get stuck in, whereas I teach the girls techniques which make it easy to lift everything.
“I often come home from a job, and maybe an hour later I have a sore shoulder or something and I’ll think, ‘I think I know where that came from’.”
Miss Tikitiki said adrenaline helped with the job.
“You’re not held back from anything. Just do what you can.
“When you’re out on a job, the adrenaline kicks in and you can lift most things, no problem.”
Miss Grant joined the brigade five months ago, after having lived in St Andrews for 18 months.
She said it had helped her to get to know the community.
“I hadn’t made many friends until I joined here.
“I thought I’d settle into the district first before joining.
“It’s been pretty exciting to help the community, learn some new skills. I did traffic control for the first time the other day.”
Three of the firefighters will participate in the Sky Tower Challenge later this year. It’ll be Mrs Fletcher’s second attempt at the challenge.
“It was fun but it wasn’t easy.”
The brigade is actively seeking volunteers, especially those who are available during the day.
“Age or gender is no barrier,” Miss Tikitiki said.
“I joined when I was 17 and I’ve always felt included.”
The women described belonging to the brigade as a big commitment, but rewarding.
“It can be hard on families,” Mrs Phillips said.
“We had a callout [on Sunday night] for a fire in Waimate which was very hard. We were there for five hours. ”
“You’re on call at all times,” Miss Tikitiki said.
“And when you’re called out, you never know what you’re going to, how severe it’ll be.
“You’re not sure if it will be someone you know.
“The alarm goes off and suddenly you’re doing something completely different.”
Mrs Fletcher said the best things about volunteering were the social aspect and helping people in the community.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand women’s development manager Barbara Olah said the St Andrews brigade’s female representation was fantastic.
“We’re keen for more women to join us and are pleased to see women are increasingly interested in becoming firefighters.
“Nationally, we have 95 career female firefighters and nearly 2500 female volunteers (including firefighters, operational support and brigade support). This is around 5.5% of career firefighters and around 20% of our volunteers.
“There are increasing numbers of females joining, and we are seeing more all-female crews in both the volunteer and career spaces.
“Fire and Emergency embraces diversity and inclusiveness and welcomes people from all walks of life.
“Each of our firefighters, men and women, bring different skill sets and attitudes to the role that complement each other.
“We are a better, more rounded organisation because of the benefits that diversity and inclusiveness bring.”