They all did it for various reasons but the women in the Guyana Fire Service over the years came together in their agendas: to serve people and to provide support where needed. Unlike their colleagues in the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Defence Force the women in the fire service are not as well known, as they are seldom seen out fighting fires.
In fact, according to the most senior female fire officer, Divisional Fire Officer Administration (the first woman to hold position) Jacqueline Greene, when she joined the service 30 years ago, there were about 12 other women and they were not “allowed” to go out and do actual firefighting. “But I used to get away sometimes. The men use to allow me and I would go out with them because they would have seen you had this enthusiasm,” Greene told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview with a smile that must have been on her face when she ‘got away’ in those early days.
“I think that may have happened because the men then just did not want [women] to go out because they thought maybe… [women] could not have done this or that. Those men later left and it was around late 1989 that I was [first] allowed to officially respond [to a fire],” Greene said. She recalled that at one fire scene she “suddenly” realized that the men “had gone and left me. I don’t know if they had gone to find water or what but I was alone fighting and I stood up [and fought the fire].” She was not scared and just did what she had to do “because my main focus was to save the building and save others from going down.”
Today, it is different. There are over 50 women firefighters and they have to be involved in all activities of the fire service. It has not been an easy road for them because, as is well known, women always have to fight twice as hard in what may be viewed as a male-dominated profession. But they would have it no other way and firewomen they would remain.
Greene’s interest in the fire service was sparked as a child when she witnessed firemen rescuing an old woman from a house in her home village of Plaisance. Greene recalled that she applied and was told there was no vacancy. But two weeks later a fire vehicle arrived at her home and she was told to visit the service headquarters to write a test. She later got the job.
For Marcia Bell, another senior officer in the service, it was her interest in “service to people” that propelled her to the fire service. And as luck would have it she is now in the department that deals with helping fire victims to access various services.
“Many days you sit and talk with victims who can’t even talk because they are crying so much. They are so traumatized and you have to sit and sometimes hold their hands and tell them it would be alright,” Bell told this newspaper.
For two of their junior ranks, leading Firewomen Shavea Jordan and Sophia Boucher the reasons were different but similar.
Jordan grew up seeing her father get dressed in his fire service uniform and she was always impressed. After trying her hand at two other jobs she heeded the encouragement of her father and has not regretted it. Boucher also was employed elsewhere for years before she decided to join the service since as she put it, “I wanted a career.”
Planned to stay a short while
Greene confessed that initially when she joined the service, even though an interest was sparked as a teenager, she did not plan to remain for very long.
“But things happened, I got to like it,” she admitted. Her next promotion could see her become Deputy Chief Fire Officer, but she is unlikely to advance all the way to the top as she is a little older than the current Chief Fire Officer Marlon Gentle.
For her it was the love for the job that made her stay this long and she will remain to the end.
“Sometimes you look at it and you want to give up because working with the men sometimes they are supportive sometimes they are not. At times you want to know if it is like a competition and some seem to think that a woman can’t do certain jobs, and if you do it, it’s as if they feel less of a man,” Greene said in response to a question. Certain achievements are not recognized by some of the men.
Bell has been in the service for 27 years and she would have it no other way.
“I always wanted to be in an area where I can help members of the public and give them advice whenever they are tramautised,” she said quietly during the recent interview.
She explained that her department assists members of the public who would request letters to take to organisations in an effort to get their lives back together after the tragedy of a fire.
“I always want to console people so I would sit with them when they are crying; I would talk with them and encourage them that they still have life and they can go on from there.”
She would advise them on the offices they needed to visit and would even prep them on what they needed to say as they seek assistance. She recalled the experience dealing with a young woman who had returned to Guyana from Trinidad after a failed marriage. She lost all her belongings in a fire and she was at her wits end to acquire important documents again, including that of her son who was born in Trinidad.
“She visited here actually two, three times a week and she kept crying and she said people cannot help her and she don’t know what else to do. I put her sit her down and explained to her what she can do, guided her along the line for her to get the documents back,” Bell said.
She needed documents from Guyana and Trinidad and in the end Bell said she wrote letters for the woman to take Trinidad and she even had to explain to a Justice of Peace what was needed on a notarized document for which “he was giving the woman a runaround.”
“She called me back later in tears and said ‘thank you so much I got every document’,” Bell said adding that even in Trinidad she got the documents.
It is experiences like the above that keep her going from day to day. “I was moved, that is my reward,” she said.
For Bell her years in the service have not been very difficult; she gets along with her male counterparts. “I always connect with them and as climbed higher I remained humble and they could always approach me.” And even though there are some battles, she staunchly said, “It doesn’t move me.” She encourages women to join the service. “I would say you come to work, do not stoop low but work to achieve everything and don’t do things that are not right, stay on the right track,” she said.
“Even though I had challenges they have made me strong because these last few years we have had challenges,” she said, as Greene shook her head in the affirmative but they both conceded that there would be challenges wherever they worked.
‘Love the challenges’
Jordan has been in the service for nine years and she has had some challenges but as she puts it “I love the challenges” She recalled that as a child, she would see the firemen travelling at the back of the fire engine and she was awestruck by this. “Because I was always a tomboy but now we don’t travel like that,” she said.
She believes being in the Guyana Fire Service is a very prestigious job, “although Guyanese don’t think of it that way.”
Her only bugbear is working in the office because she believes this prevents her from “doing what I want to do as a fire firefighter.”
“I want to go out on the road and fight fires,” she said, conceding that in the past she had gone out and fought “a few small fires but nothing major. To me I don’t feel much like a firefighter because I am in the office doing administrative work.”
Boucher recalled that the secondary school she attended had a small electrical fire and she was one of the students at the school entrance who had to lie on the roadway until the firemen and GPL officials visited. She believes it might be then that the interest was sparked but she never acted on it until later when she thought about a career.
“It has been good so far, there were some challenges, some speed humps but I am still here,” she said when questioned on her 15 years in the service.
She works in the control room and she experiences the good, bad and even the evil at times from members of the public.
“Some would call and cuss you out for nothing and then others including children would call and play with the phone and you still have to maintain your professionalism and deal with them politely,” she said.
She recalled that the first time she went to fight a fire, because of her small stature, she was chosen to go through a window to rescue a child. She cannot forget the many times she was among the fire fighters who were abused by members of the public.
“But we have to understand that people are losing their belongings…and so they would be upset and they want to lash out and it is not really personal,” she said.
But for these officers and their colleagues firefighting is what they love and firefighting is what they will continue to do.