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Saturday, April 13, 2024
Nothing stops NOTL’s women firefighters
Tayler Rodrigue, left, and Rebecca Van der Zalm are two of three female firefighters working out of the Glendale district fire station. EVAN LOREE
Tayler Rodrigue looks back at fellow volunteer Rebecca Van der Zalm while climbing the ladder of a fire truck. EVAN LOREE
Rebecca Van der Zalm climbs the ladder of a fire truck. EVAN LOREE
Firefighters Rebecca Van der Zalm and Tayler Rodrigue are two of three female firefighters stationed in Glendale, Niagara-on-the-Lake. EVAN LOREE

At Niagara-on-the-Lake’s fire station in Glendale, women stand shoulder to shoulder with men, and go toe to toe with fire.

Rebecca Van der Zalm has been on the team of volunteer firefighters since 2019 and Tayler Rodrigue got her black helmet in June 2023.

Together, they form an integral part of NOTL’s volunteer fire department.

“No matter your gender, you are capable of doing whatever you put your mind to,” says Van der Zalm.

Despite working in a traditionally male-dominated field, neither woman feels out of place in the emergency services sector.

“There really isn’t any sexism present in our department. They have built a really good safe space for everyone,” Rodrigue says.

There’s the odd joke at each other’s expense, but it’s all in good fun, she adds.

Muscle matters when lives are on the line, though. You never know when you may have to pull someone out of a dangerous situation, whether it be a wrecked car or a burning building.

Both women say men, because of their larger physical builds, tend to fit more naturally into the job.

“Males are naturally stronger,” Van der Zalm says.

But Rodrigue thinks it’s not so much about gender as it is about body type.

“I’m 5 foot 3 and petite, I probably can’t carry as much weight or tools as someone who’s taller,” she says.

Rather than comparing herself to one of her male colleagues, Rodrigue cites Van der Zalm as an example of a physically strong firefighter.

A few inches taller and with broader shoulders than her peer, Van der Zalm doesn’t have the same issues as Rodrigue, but still has to commit to an active lifestyle to stay in the game.

“I go to the gym, six days a week. On top of that, I play soccer, and I play rugby, so I am very active,” she says.

The greater challenge in fighting fires is the need for emotional strength, she says.

Van der Zalm hasn’t been on too many traumatizing calls yet, but others at the Glendale station have seen their fair share.

The toughest call, she says, was at the scene of a car crash where she had to keep a patient calm and still as her fellow firefighters cut into his truck to get him out.

The patient survived, but it was “probably my worst call.”

Everyone has different strengths, says Rodrigue.

Some are small, like her, and others are taller, like Van der Zalm, but no one is defined by their weaknesses, she says.

Rodrigue says her smaller frame comes in handy when she needs to fit into a tight space, which happens often in emergencies.

Van der Zalm says she came to firefighting after trying her hand at public education, but the shoes didn’t quite fit, so she traded them for the rubber smoke stompers she wears on emergency calls.

When she’s not in the gym or firehouse, she works as a pharmacist’s assistant at Simpson’s.

Rodrigue works full-time as an insurance broker and volunteers a few nights a week as a cheerleading instructor.

Van der Zalm and Brenda Lowes, the third woman firefighter at Station 5, were a big source of inspiration when Rodrigue joined up.

“It was much easier coming into the job knowing my station already had two amazing, strong women to mentor me,” she says.

As much as she has inspired Rodrigue, Van der Zalm says she turns to her own mom for inspiration.

“My biggest role model is my mom,” she says. “Nothing, stopped her,” not even her eight kids.

“If she needed to do it, she would get it done. No questions asked.”

Mothers helped pave the way for both women, though, as Rodrigue also feels her mom has also been a source of enduring support. “She basically raised me on her own.”

Even at her weakest moments, Rodrigue says her mom always had a little bit of strength to spare for her daughter.

That helps in her role as a firefighter.

“Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a man’s job,” Rodrigue says.

“It’s not. It’s a job for anyone who is willing to risk their lives for a complete stranger.”

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