For Rebecca van der Zalm, being a firefighter was not something that was on her radar for most of her life.
She didn’t dream of fighting fires as a kid and it wasn’t her life ambition.
But last week van der Zalm was given her black helmet, along with 14 other new Niagara-on-the-Lake volunteer firefighters, making her a full-fledged member of the team.
It’s a big change of pace from her regular job as a pharmacy assistant at Simpson’s Pharmacy, she says.
“It's exciting. It's definitely something new. It's not something that I, when I was growing up, I thought to myself that I would want to get into. But over the past few years, I really thought about it. And I just kind of bit the bullet … and filled out the application and here we are.”
She says she decided to try out after being encouraged by friends and family involved with the fire department.
“My cousin Matthew is in the fire department, I have a few friends, close friends, in the fire department and they kind of said, like, just go for it cuz I was hemming and hawing the past few years.”
She was supposed to have graduated sooner, but as with most of the world, COVID put a wrench in those plans.
“The training was definitely long — COVID took its toll on us, especially in the end there. We would have been done a little bit sooner if COVID didn't happen, but we had to, obviously, we had to go with the flow of things.”
She says part of the reason she became a firefighter is because she felt she was fit enough for the job, as well as having a passion for being involved in the community.
“I’m really athletic, I play a lot of sports, I'm really involved in the community,” she said.
She’s volunteered as a coach for the NOTL Skating Club, helped at Red Roof Retreat, played soccer, baseball and rugby locally, and continued rugby in Stoney Creek.
But what really pushed her was hearing about being a firefighter from her friends, especially Dylan Skubel, who is also a NOTL firefighter.
“I knew that it was more of a team atmosphere. It's not like every man by themselves type of thing.”
She’s one of five women among the new graduates.
It was “really exciting” to see four other women in the group with her, she says.
“It was nice to look around and see that there was four other women with their with me and I'm sure they felt the same way.”
“There were five of us in our recruit class this year. When I walked in the door and saw that there were so many women, because it's kind of intimidating — you don't like to admit it, but it's definitely kind of intimidating to walk through a room full of men try and do what they're doing.”
She said the women didn’t group together most times, but she was proud to be a part.
“I liked it. It really showed that we're capable of a lot.”
She said while it didn’t feel like an “obstacle” to overcome, strength is a big factor in being a firefighter, and as a woman it is a challenge to prove yourself.
“Obviously strength is a big one because men are naturally stronger than women,” she says.
“Just being a being a female … you really have to show that you are capable of doing stuff that men, I'd say, would typically say you can't do or think that you wouldn't be able to do as well. And it's not even doing it like the same way as them. Sometimes you just have to find a way that works for you, that still gets the job done.”
She said during training the recruits were split into platoons and the men on the platoons encouraged her.
“It was really nice that like the guys didn't just push us aside and say they were gonna do it,” she said.
“They were like cheering us on and they were willing to help us. If we couldn't lift a tool as high as them, there was no doubt they would help us.”
“And from my personal experience, they were really willing to help me and eager to cheer me on. And if I was nervous about something, they would help talk me through it.”
When asked how she feels, now being an inspiration to other women who want to become firefighters, she said she’d never really thought about it that way.
“I guess, in a way, yeah, I think I would be,” she says.
“Maddie Skubel was kind of an inspiration to me to come into the fire department. I've known her, grown up with her. She's a few years younger than me, but last year I noticed that she was part of the fire department. And I was like, 'Oh, well, like, I can do that.' I guess people might be able to look at me and be like, 'Oh, if she can do it, then maybe I can do it too' type of thing.”
Her advice to other women considering becoming firefighter is, “Go for it.”
“And if you're scared, don't even hesitate, cause you learn, right? I knew nothing coming into the fire department, like absolutely nothing —I couldn't even build a fire in my fireplace. It was so bad, but I've learned so much,” she said.
“You learn. That's the whole point of the recruit class, right? So if you think that you want to do it and you want to do it to help people and maybe grow as a person or be part of a family, everyone is so welcoming. And you will learn a lot about yourself.”
As of July 1, van der Zalm can go to all fire calls and can now fight fires inside of buildings. During training, she was able to help fight fires from outside.
“We have our black helmets now, which means we are interior firefighters, which means that we can do everything. It's pretty exciting,” she says.
She missed the helmet ceremony last week because she was away at her family cottage, so she was presented with her helmet Monday.
“A bunch of my recruit classmates have already been going on calls this week.”
She's now working out of Station 5 in the Glendale area and she’s proud of herself for following through.
“Even if you think you can't do something, you can always surprise yourself. Follow your dreams.”