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Waterloo Fire's Acting Captain trailblazing for women in fire rescue

'I never really considered myself a role model until I noticed the reactions I would receive when people saw a woman getting out of the fire truck,' said Laura Gutscher
Laura Gutscher
Laura Gutscher

Waterloo Fire Rescue (WFR)’s headquarters - or Station 2 – is located on Columbia Street in Waterloo. Visiting the station as a guest these days is a rarity; fire station tours are no longer open to the public (for now), and contributing to the annual Toys for Needy Kids toy drive means leaving much-needed unwrapped gifts in the foyer.

And the few who are granted special permission to enter must abide by strict protocols.

Greeted by the platoon waiting inside the massive double doors, there's warmth inside WFR's walls, familiar to entering a home. Typically, you would call it a brotherhood in this male-dominated industry, but this family also has a sister.

Less than five per cent of firefighters are women, and according to P-SEC, "only 20 per cent of all firefighters hold a career position while the remaining 80 per cent are volunteers."

Women often feel discouraged from male-focused industries such as firefighting because they don’t see or know any women in the field. But Waterloo Fire Rescue's Acting Captain Laura Gutscher wants would-be firewomen to know that females encompass many attributes that make a great firefighter.

Gutscher has been with WFR since 2009. She remembers the day she joined the team, making her one of four females. Her experience as a woman in fire rescue has been uniquely different than the stories you hear about discrimination and division.

"I was never treated differently because I'm female," she said. "I never felt like I was the female firefighter amongst a whole bunch of male firefighters. I've just always felt I was part of the team; they had confidence I could do the job."

Currently, WFR employs 10 female firefighters, one of whom recently became a Captain – a future Gutscher says she also has her sight set on.

A typical day for the Acting Captain includes overseeing the truck, daily briefings, training and running the day for her fire crew.

"You're in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly. You have plan A, but plan B might come in there because it's always a dynamic day, which is part of the excitement of being a firefighter," she said.

Being the only female in the room is something she grew accustomed to during her Pre-Service Firefighting Education and Training at Conestoga College in 2008. Gutscher said she worked hard to prove herself. Often testing highest in her class, she also received the "Top Gun Award" for outstanding achievement.

"Women [in fire rescue] bring a different perspective. Also, on some calls, some women only want to talk to other women. So, we (women) provide reassurance or even problem solving differently than a man."

Gutscher's sister is also a firefighter. She said it was the influence of her older sibling and that of a college professor (who left to support the New York Fire Dept. on September 11, 2001) that made her realize firefighting was where she belonged.

Entry requirements are the same, regardless of gender (or size) - during her training Gutscher was expected to keep up with her male counterparts, "fighting fires, responding to emergency medical situations, motor vehicle extrication, hazardous materials incidents, etcetera."

"A fellow firefighter stated in his speech for our graduation that, 'pound for pound,’ I was the strongest firefighter in my graduation class," she said.

The mother of two was pregnant when she began working towards the role of Active Captain.

"I never really considered myself a role model until I noticed the reactions I would receive when people saw a woman getting out of the fire truck. I would hear mothers telling their young daughters, 'Look, girls can be firefighters too.'"

Gutscher admits she even enjoys the "second look" she often receives when driving the fire truck.

The most challenging part of her job isn't about keeping up physically (with her male counterparts). Instead, it's the "extreme physical and emotional trauma."

 Growing up in Waterloo Region, she says she only "saw the outside of the city."

"Now I see inside the walls. Namely mental health, poverty, drug addiction, abuse, and hoarding."

Gutscher says she manages her stress by staying active and reaching out to her sister when she needs to talk to another woman who understands the heavy load that a (female) first responder carries.

As for dispelling the myth that women are not physically able of performing the duties of fire fighting, she recommends that women stay in "top physical form."

"Fire departments can ensure that their websites show that their woman firefighters are an integral part of their service and should hire capable women. In addition, reporters can help dispel the myth by highlighting females on emergency scenes," she added.

Her advice to girls who dream of a future in fire rescue is simple: "Go for it.”

"Be involved in your community and stay physically in shape. Through hard work and determination, they can achieve their dream of becoming a firefighter."    

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