(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)

Female deputy fire chief embraces the challenges

“Fighting a fire can be taught to anyone,” says Kelowna deputy fire chief, Sandra Follack

In this edition of Women in Business, women were interviewed who are employed in typically male-dominated industries or in a position that was historically filled by a man.

These women share their stories of being underrepresented in their field and leadership roles – in the hope that their perseverance and success become the guiding light for the next generation of women in business, so they continue to break glass ceilings and meet their goals.

Women in Business shows who the movers and the shakers are in Kelowna and that there is always a space to share stories of successful women.

There are just a few women leading fire departments in B.C. One of them helps lead a crew of about 140 over seven fire stations around Kelowna.

As a female in a role traditionally served by men, Sandra Follack understands the importance of dissolving stereotypes.

She believes that as long as someone has the required skills and experience, they should be trusted to do a good job in their role, regardless of their gender.

Follack serves as the Deputy Chief of Emergency Management and Communications for the Kelowna Fire Department, a position she has held for 14 years. Before this, she was a dispatcher. Now, she works with chief officers and dispatchers to ensure emergency calls go smoothly and also helps to predict and plan around disasters.

Born and raised on a farm in the Lower Mainland, Follack grew up with close ties to the local fire department thanks to her father’s friendship with a crew member.

Her first role in the force was as a call-taker for the Abbotsford Police Department. However, shortly after she switched to the fire service, working with the Langley Fire Department and the Surrey Fire Department, before coming to Kelowna.

Each one of her roles has involved communication, involved in either dispatching, emergency programming, or both.

In the past, Follack explained, gender stereotypes have followed the fire service. Men have often been thought of as ‘more suitable’ for the role given its long hours, physical demand, and more. However, Follack says this is changing.

“Everything that you do in the fire service is not what it was 25 years ago, with your typical (a stereotype that) the guy has to be the brute force and break down a door,” she said.

Fighting a fire, Follack added, can be taught anyone, “as long as the drive is there.”

“I have always known women in the fire service. I know women that are firefighters, I know women that are captains, I know women that are assistant chiefs.

“Being one of the few deputy chiefs in the province is not usually what occurs. I like to think of it as: if you strive to be somewhere, it’s what you like to do, and you understand the processes and the procedures… what better person to do it than someone who’s learned the ropes.”

It is unusual for a woman to be considered a chief officer, Follack explained. However, just like a firefighter works their way up through the ranks to become a chief officer, so has Follack in the communications side of the fire department.

Times are changing and in the coming years, Follack expects to see more females climbing the ladder.

“If you’ve learned that process, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re male or female… I think male and female is a stigma that is going away from the fire service.”

Over the years she has been challenged as a female in the role.

“Your background knowledge may not be known when you’re talking with somebody else in a different fire department… you will get the odd comment, ‘well she’s a female, what does she know, right.’”

Sometimes when a question is raised, Follack says she is ignored, and the individual seeking the answer will instead go to the man of similar expertise.

“I never get offended. I just say – it depends on what the challenge is – but usually, it’s having that conversation. This is the knowledge I have. Does this benefit you?”

Being a woman in the communications world, as a dispatcher, has helped Follack. She said her background in raising children has allowed her to multitask, and quickly and efficiently process information. This, she said, is changing. Many men are entering into the role of a dispatcher, and doing well.

Getting to where she is today wasn’t easy for Follack, yet she embraced the journey.

“I love the challenges that this role brings, and I love working in this environment. You can strive to do whatever you want to do if you enjoy it if you have a desire to do it.”

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