Female firefighters are leading the charge on cooperative integration of Island forces

Zoe DeGroote (inset), president, Catherine Chevalier, vice president and Belinda Butcher, secretary/treasurer of the Manitoulin Firefighters Association are not looking to set the world on fire but they are looking to engage Island firefighters to take a more active role in the association. photo by Alicia McCutcheon

MANITOULIN—There’s been a change in the helm of the Manitoulin Firefighters Association (MFA) in the form of three eager young women who want the Island, and their firefighters, to know they’re there to raise awareness of Manitoulin’s many volunteer firefighters and to be of support for every single one of them.

Zoe DeGroote, president, Catherine Chevalier, vice president, and Belinda Butcher, secretary/treasurer of the MFA are all relatively new to the business of fighting fires (although Ms. DeGroote is a trained professional, having all her firefighting credentials and plans to one day fight fires for a full-time living), but all three are incredibly eager to learn. The women joined the Northeast Town Fire Department in 2017 and became the new executive members of the MFA this spring. The firefighters are reaching out to all of the Island departments, asking their fellow firefighters to get active in the association that’s there for them, too.

Ms. Butcher explained that the chief, Duane Deschamps, was encouraging his members to take more of an active role in the MFA and the three women decided to take him up on it. At her first meeting, and at just age 20, Ms. DeGroote was elected president. Soon after, her fellow firefighters, Ms. Butcher and Ms. Chevalier, were elected too. The three wasted no time in changing the direction of the MFA.

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“We wanted to change how it was run, from less officer-led to more firefighter-directed,” Ms. Butcher explained.

The women realized that the MFA was missing a mission statement and so came up with one, that the MFA’s purpose was to “encourage community engagement and create a brotherhood between the departments.”

Ms. Butcher explained that every firefighter on Manitoulin is automatically a member of the MFA and all are welcome and encouraged to attend the meetings. Ms. DeGroote and her executive have a new rule, that all conversations are kept at the firefighter level.

“We’re trying to change everything for the better,” Ms. Butcher said.

The firefighters have also developed a new MFA logo and t-shirts for both Island firefighters and those that support them. Adult t-shirts are available for purchase for just $25 with the proceeds going to support the MFA which in turn means new gear for Island firefighters. The MFA executive also plans on making the organization easily accessible with a showing at every Island event they can attend. A one-day baseball tournament and 24-hour hockey-thon is also in the works, so stay tuned for more details.

“As an association, we want to be present everywhere,” Ms. Butcher enthused. “We can answer questions, concerns or if you just want to stop by and say ‘hey’.”

“We want people to know who we are,” Ms. Chevalier added. “If we have to show up at your house, it’s nice to know who you’re dealing with.”

“If we see you, it’s likely the worst day of your life,” Ms. Butcher added. “So if you do have to see us, you know there’s a friendly face behind the equipment.”

“We’re a friendly sight,” Ms. DeGroote added.

Ms. Chevalier said it’s also important for people to know that there’s so much to being a firefighter, hours and hours of dedication. It’s not that image of years gone by, and not an accurate one at that, of a group of guys hanging out at the fire hall and drinking beer—not by a longshot. For one, that just isn’t allowed.

“We’re in it 100 percent,” she added.

“It’s full commitment,” Ms. DeGroote said. “Even though it’s ‘volunteer,’ there is no volunteer.”

To become a firefighter one must be willing to learn and commit a huge amount of time to the crew, the women add. They shared that at the beginning of their time on the department, they would go to the station on their own time, learning their way around the truck, memorizing each piece of equipment and its name. “If someone asks you to grab a pike at a fire and you have no idea what that is and someone else has to come and do your job, that’s a huge problem as every second counts,” Ms. Butcher said.

“You have to be able to listen and learn, because there’s so much to learn,” Ms. Chevalier added.

“It’s a paramilitary system, so there’s orders,” Ms. Butcher said. “You need to be able to follow orders and take direction.”

“You also need to be reliable,” Ms. Chevalier said. “If I’m partnered with you on a call and we’re in a burning house and I need you to pull me to safety, I need to count on you.”

Ms. Butcher said one’s physical fitness is also key. “Just getting your gear on is work,” she said.

“We really are professional—we’re doing the job of professional firefighters with little pay and at five percent of the resources (of a city fire department),” Ms. Butcher continued. “We do all the same things a professional department does.”

Ms. DeGroote pointed out that 70 percent of all Ontario’s firefighters are volunteers.

To find out more about the MFA or becoming a firefighter at your local department, invite the MFA to an event or to purchase one of their great shirts, contact manitoulin.ff.association@gmail.com.

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