Cape Town mother and fire fighter Coleen Johnson on trailblazing her way in a male-dominated field
On a Sunday evening, as I drove home, I saw the mountain bright and sparkly in my rear-view mirror. But this time, it wasn’t the twinkling white lights of hikers making their way up and down Lion’s Head. No. It was a warm light a burning light. By Monday morning, the fires have been contained, leaving only a disappearing cloud of grey smoke over the mountain and the smell of what had been in the air. When I ask Coleen if she’d heard about it, she responds, “Yes, shame, all my friends are fighting…” She lets out a deep sigh and I can feel a similar sense of powerlessness. “It’s awful.”
Coleen says she no longer works for the City of Cape Town after relocating to Pringle Bay two years ago. “We don’t have a full-time fire department here. We’ve got a volunteer fire station in Pringle Bay so I’m a member of that. I’m a volunteer fire fighter here now.”
Coleen moved to Cape Town when she was eight years old and went to an all-girls school. But, she explains, “I’ve never been a girly-girl.” Jumping out of the line of fire was always more her thing and she calls her job "the best in the world”. “I knew from about the age of seven that I wanted to become a fire fighter. It wasn’t a fire fighter specifically, I wanted to be a rescuer. When I was in matric, it was a bit of a tossup between going to the fire department or going the paramedic route or going into rescue.”
"But at the time, rescue didn’t accept females and the fire department was still very much on the borderline, you know, with accepting females. So I actually went and did my basic ambulance course and I worked there for a year, then I got into the fire department from there. “I was one of the first female fire fighters in Cape Town,” she continues. “I think when I joined there were only three of us at Milnerton Fire and probably only about 20 in the whole of Cape Town. So it was still quite new when I joined.”
We speak about the consequences of being new but different, in an industry dominated by men.
“Did you get any… hostility?”
She tells me two stories, one about her supervisor, the other of her Fire Fighter One exam. “I went on my Fire Fighter One course and I scored 100%. And it was the first time that had ever happened. I was acknowledged by someone in a top position and he said, you know, this is quite a momentous thing and we’re going to be watching her… But then I went back to the fire station and my abilities were still being questioned.” She doesn't go into too much detail but explains what it must have been like to be stuck in a particular mindset.
“It was that immediate, oh because you’re female, you don’t know anything or you’re not capable. You’re not enough.”
But now, while it did take some fighting, she says in their small town of Pringle Bay, she is after all lined up to be the next station commander.
And it was worth the fight. “I’m not saying there weren’t good times, there were good times. And as people learn to know you and work with you and love you, you know, it changes,” she says. “It was fun. Like that’s just what I remember. It was a lot of fun going out and fighting the fires with the guys. I mean, it was obviously hard work but we had a lot of fun out there. It wasn’t all serious and how people perhaps think firefighting may be.”
She shares more stories with me, there was a reference to roasted chickens with a side order of misogyny but ultimately she says it was good fun. “I look back on those days and I miss it, I really, really miss it. And I still have loads and loads and loads of friends there. Guys that I’ve worked with that I’m still good friends with,” she jokes.
I ask if she was ever scared? Anxious? “No, I can’t say I was. When you’re with a team of seven guys and often more, you’ve got so many people watching your back. And I must say my station commander at the time was very good and I always felt protected. Obviously, it’s dangerous in its inherent nature, but I knew my station was never going to place me in a situation that was going to leave me trapped in a building.”
We move on, and Coleen is getting lost in everything she loves about being a fire fighter, even the element itself ignites something in her. “If you ever get that close,” she says, “You realise how beautiful it is, as much as it can be scary and destructive. The flames, the embers, there’s something lovely about it at the same time.” Bringing herself back, she laughs, “Best job in the world!”
Coleen says things eventually got better. They became somewhat “comfortable”. But oftentimes when things start to feel comfortable, there isn’t much room for growth. It was a matter of leaving the life she loved, but for something better. And she wasn’t doing it alone. “I’ve got two girls. Anna is eight and Isla is one. Anna’s my sensitive child. She definitely respects and looks up and I think, is very proud of me and what I do. But at the same time I think it makes her a bit anxious because for her the thought of me going out and putting myself in danger scares her a little.” Coleen says Anna’s taken some interest in becoming a doctor like her paramedic dad.
“Isla, I think, is a little too small to pass comments,” she said, “But my Isla is going to be my little fire fighter one day. I think she’s ready for the world. She’s completely gung-ho,” she jokes. Although Coleen absolutely loves fighting fires, I ask her if Isla were to really follow that same path, if she’d be okay with it, you know, motherly instincts and all. “Absolutely,” she answers, without hesitation. “I know it comes with a sense of worry but I also know the happiness that it brings doing something that you love. And that’s what you want for your kids, you want them to be happy.”
Her advice to a little girl, or boy, with big dreams? “Don’t let anybody stand in your way. If somebody laughs at you turn around and say I’m doing it anyway. There’s nothing greater than living your dream. There’s nothing that makes you happier than living your dream. For me it was the best time of my life and it still is. I still love what I do. They say if you do what you love then you’ll never work a day in your life. So follow that and don’t let people’s opinions or perceptions about you stop you from doing that.”
By now the smoke over the mountain has cleared and before we say goodbye I ask my final, burning question, “So the girls, they’re going to save the world like mommy and daddy then?”
“Like mommy and daddy,” she affirms, gleefully, proudly.