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Female firefighters blazing the trail for more girls to pursue the career

Just 2.3% of firefighters here are women - but that could all be about to change. Stephanie Bell talks to two females who have overcome various obstacles to join this unique group about why they are encouraging more girls to pursue the career

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Joanne O’Lynn with fellow firefighter Rachael Garrett

The first ever female firefighters at Belfast International Airport are blazing a trail for more women to join the service by sharing their skills with a new generation.

Rachael Garrett and Joanne O'Lynn are among a small minority of women in what is still very much a male dominated profession in Northern Ireland - just 2.3% of firefighters here are women.

Now, in a bid to fire up more females to consider it as a career, the two women have just hosted the first, of what they hope will be many, new workshops for young girls at the Antrim airport.

The event was held in conjunction with Little Women NI - a not-for-profit initiative aimed at pre-teen girls to help them to develop skills in confidence, communication, creativity, team building and leadership.

Ten girls aged between seven and 11 took part in the workshop offering them an insight into firefighting as a career.

Thanks to Rachael and Joanne, they were able to take part in a series of specially designed activities and drills and meet the women who shared first hand their experiences of firefighting. Currently, there are around 2,000 firefighters in Northern Ireland, 46 of whom are women.

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Rachael with girls at the Little Women NI workshop

Rachael (31), from Islandmagee, is married to Mervyn (39), an electrician, and they have one daughter, Summer, who is 18 months old. The couple also run a farm.

Rachael studied for a degree in geography, but says if she had known sooner that firefighting was a career option she would never have enrolled at university.

Now she is determined to make sure young girls today realise that it is a rewarding job that is open to them.

"When I was younger, the role of a firefighter was never on my radar, partly because it wasn't considered a female career," she says.

"I wanted to deliver this programme to let more young girls know what is involved in the role of a firefighter and, in particular, break down the gender stereotype that it's a male role.

"I hope it has inspired the young girls to be confident and determined in whatever career they pursue, speak up and not be afraid to just be themselves.

"When people first find out my job, they often comment on my size or make other remarks but it didn't put me off, just more determined. Strong women come in all shapes and sizes."

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Busy life: Rachael with her daughter Summer and husband Mervyn

Rachael has been a firefighter for five years, working first in her local station in Whitehead as part of a retained team before applying to be part of the airport crew three years ago.

She was the first of four women to join the 50-strong airport crew.

The firefighter says: "I had to do a two-year apprenticeship for a dual role between the operations department and the fire department.

"It required studying for a BTEC diploma and NVQ in Aviation Operations. That was in 2016 and it has worked out great. I work two 12-hour days and then two 12-hour nights and then I am off for four days."

Initially, she combined her new full-time firefighter post with her retained post at Whitehead.

That all changed when she decided to have a family and daughter Summer came along last year.

Now she comfortably juggles her career with being a mum, with her shift pattern allowing for plenty of quality time with her daughter.

Training is ongoing for Rachael and her colleagues so that they are prepared for any emergency which might arise at the airport.

Training is ongoing for Rachael and her colleagues so that they are prepared for any emergency which might arise at the airport.

They are also the first people to attend passengers who fall ill and a big part of what they do also involves keeping our runways clear of birds and other wildlife.

Rachael says: "We patrol the airfield and runways constantly in our jeep and we have different distress signals to scare off the birds and wildlife.

"They can be quite a nuisance at times and we are very lucky that in my time here we haven't had any bird strikes or anything major happen because of wildlife on the runway."

The girls are on standby for any aircraft that might radio ahead to warn of possible difficulty with landing.

While they are always prepared for the worst, they are both thankful that their training so far to deal with an emergency crash situation has not been required. Rachel says: "You are always planning for different types of emergencies but you always hope it never happens.

"We cover every scenario during training and try to plan for every eventuality."

There are many aspects to the job that have given her immense job satisfaction.

She says: "I love the challenge of doing something that isn't easy. I also like the role of helping people and I love the training aspect as I enjoy learning new things.

"I really enjoy it. It is never boring and every day is different.

"Working shifts allows me to have a good work life balance and gives me lots of time to spend with my daughter."

However, standing at just 5ft 2in and being female has influenced how some people react when they learn what job she does.

"People still make snide comments - attitudes certainly haven't changed in everybody," she says.

"I've had a lot of comments about how small I am and people asking 'how could you carry me out of a burning building'? We are trained to do everything our male colleagues do and we get such a lot of support from them.

"I think there does need to be more work done to attract females into the profession and that's why we were delighted to hold the workshop.

"It was a fantastic day and we had so much fun with the girls. We already have a waiting list for others which we are now planning and look forward to holding in the coming weeks."

Rachael's colleague Joanne (30), from Larne, has been in the fire service for three years and is also based at Aldergrove. She too studied at university and left with a degree in psychology. She was working in administration in the office of a freight company when she saw a vacancy advertised for a firefighter at the airport.

She says: "I just thought it sounded really interesting and varied and especially as it is a dual role.

"I also like to learn new things and as part of the training involved studying for two qualifications in Aviation Operations, that really appealed to me.

"I did know it was a very male dominated profession, but the fact that females were underrepresented only made me more determined to apply and get through each stage of the application process.

"I went to an information evening first and I went into this room packed with people and I couldn't see any other females.

"I was approached after the event by a woman from human resources who told me to pick up an application form on the way out and I did."

Joanne, who enjoys fitness and running, and also, more recently, rowing, has worked extra hard to keep her fitness levels up since joining the service.

"I was worried I wouldn't be strong enough or fit enough even though I have always exercised," she says.

"It hasn't been a problem and three years on I can do as much as the men. We get a lot of training and if you did need to lift a person that is not something you do on your own whether you are male or female."

Joanne is delighted to have teamed up with Rachael to arrange the career workshops.

She too says she never considered it as a career option in her teens and would also have skipped university and joined the service much sooner had she known it would be such a fulfilling career.

"I really enjoy it. No two days are the same and we are constantly learning and you develop so much as a person," she adds.

"People ask what I do for a living and when I tell them you can still see the surprised reaction, so the stereotype is very much still there.

"I think the workshops are a brilliant idea and a great opportunity for young girls to get an insight into what we do. I wish there had been something like that when I was younger."

Laura Dowie, the founder and director of Little Women NI, expressed her gratitude to the girls for helping organise the event.

"I am delighted to be working with Belfast International Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting Service to develop a brand new event for young girls in Northern Ireland," she says.

"Seeing and hearing from real life role models is so important in helping children realise what is achievable and that they can be anything they want to be irrespective of gender, so long as they work hard."

Visit facebook.com/littlewomenni for more information

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Joanne O’Lynn with fellow firefighter Rachael Garrett
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Busy life: Rachael with her daughter Summer and husband Mervyn
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Inspiring job: Joanne O’Lynn from Larne
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Rachael with girls at the Little Women NI workshop
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Rachael with girls at the Little Women NI workshop
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Busy life: Rachael with her daughter Summer and husband Mervyn