Saluting women fire fighters at Garden Route District Municipality
Garden Route District Municipality is home to seven women fire fighters, who form part of a group of 40 fire fighters (including station officers and a fire chief). Although being underrepresented in a male-dominated environment, they are a force to reckon with. This disproportionately low representation of women in fire fighting can be attributed to structural and cultural factors which often play an important role in making the career-choice seem inhospitable to women. Despite this, a “conscious and continuous” attempt by educators, fire fighters and parents can help expose youngsters, especially women, to the profession.
During an interview with six of the seven women fire fighters at GRDM, who include Bonita Conrad, Kuthala Maki, Odri-Anne Booysen, Devonia Cupido, Elana Basson and Michelle Smalberger, a few assumptions were presented to them.
Assumption 1: Women have to first showcase their knowledge and experience in fire fighting before being accepted by their male counterparts. All women fire fighters felt that this was true.
Assumption 2: There is a sense of pressure on women to do the same or even better than their male counterparts. Interviewees felt the assumption was correct, but despite this, acknowledged that they do not feel that they are treated unequally to their counterparts at GRDM.
When asked what the most important parts of their fire fighting jobs are, they agreed that “protecting lives, infrastructure and the environment,” are at the top of their list of reasons.
Nearing the end of the interview, a question was asked with the intent of making them think about their worth and potential. “Would you consider fighting in an all-women team?” One fire fighter responded by saying, “we need men by our side to fight fires”. Moments later, one fire fighter challenged this response and said, “We will be able to fight a fire on our own. Why are we doubting our own capabilities?” With this moment of truth, interviewees had a moment to think deeply about these misperceptions.
Now the question is why did these powerful women for a moment think that they wouldn’t be able to face a fire as an all-women team? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Something we see on television, hear on the radio or read about in newspapers? What really shapes this perception? This is one of the many questions we have to ask ourselves to break the glass ceiling.
One of the senior fire fighters, Bonita Conrad, twice over the past few years came out at the top of her age group at the South African Toughest Firefighter Alive Competition.
GRDM has also been dedicated to gender-transformation in fire fighting for more than a decade. The District Municipality, in 2006, was the first to appoint a woman fire chief in the Western Cape –Annelise Lamprecht-Virtue. She is truly a trailblazer in the field of fire fighting. During the October 2018 Garden Route fires she was tasked by the Western Cape Government to assist the district and local municipalities in providing strategic leadership. Her tenure at Western Cape Government as the Assistant Director: Fire and Rescue Services, started in January 2012. Annelise confirmed during a telephonic interview that she will take up a position as fire chief at Witzenberg Municipality on 1 September 2019.
Garden Route District Municipality wishes Lamprecht-Virtue all of the best with her future endeavours.
Source: Garden Route District Municipality