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Southern Alberta city hires its first two full-time female firefighters

Haley Fanning and Hailey Bessette were among six new hires by Chestermere Fire Services.
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Haley Fanning (left) and Hailey Bessette were recently hired as two of six new full-time fighters in Chestermere Fire Services. The women are the first two full-time female firefighters hired in the department's history.

Chestermere Fire Services recently hired the department’s first two full-time female firefighters, accomplishing a significant milestone in the department's history.

Haley Fanning and Hailey Bessette were among six new hires recently brought into the Chestermere department to respond to the City’s growing need for emergency response services.

Fanning comes to Chestermere from St. Albert, where she previously worked as a full-time fire and ambulance responder in that city’s integrated emergency service. She is trained as an Advanced Care Paramedic (ACP) as well as a firefighter.

“I absolutely loved the firefighting side of things,” Fanning said. “The reason I wanted to do it was I just loved being outside, I love the hands-on stuff, I love the physical aspect of it, (and) I like interacting with people.

“And the thing I love the most is that just every single day is a different kind of day. There is never going to be something just the same; it is always going to be something different.”

It is safe to say Bessette has been preparing to be a firefighter almost since the day she was born. Her dad was a long-time volunteer firefighter and formerly the fire chief with the Red Earth Creek Fire Department, located about two hours north of Lesser Slave Lake.

“I kind of grew up around the career,” she said, “so from a very young age, he started bringing us (the kids) into the hall to help with cleaning, help with sorting gear, and he would bring us to fire practices. That piqued my interest really early on in life.”

While aware of the significance of being one of Chestermere’s first two full-time female firefighters – in a profession which tends to be male-dominated – Fanning said she really just feels like one of the guys.

“As a woman, you are definitely going to be a minority,” she acknowledged. “But I think like most women that are successful in this job, and are successful in jobs where there are (fewer) women, I rarely think about the fact I am the only woman – I just think of myself as part of the team.”

That does not downplay the obstacles women firefighters have to overcome to break into the profession, Fanning acknowledged.

“I do think for most women, the physical aspect of it can be a little bit trickier because some women can be less strong in the upper body,” she said. “And you do have to work a little bit at that. I weigh 140 pounds and most of the guys weigh 200 pounds. That is a difference right there. So you do have to work a little bit at that.”

Fanning has worked as a personal trainer and does power-lifting to increase her upper body strength, and she teaches other firefighters, both male and female, how to do that as well.

“I enjoy empowering other people to be able to do that, whether they are a guy or a girl,” she confirmed. “I do enjoy helping other women build that strength. It’s a lot of fun seeing them break through what they thought they could do.” 

Bessette said what motivates her to put in the extra effort and training is her desire to work with her fellow firefighters to help those in need.

“Every single person we can help on a daily basis is a win our books,” she said. “It’s very rewarding for our whole team. We all work together to get the job done … We all have different ways of training (to) make that happen. We all carry specific tools that help us that can maybe give us the leverage to drag someone twice our weight if we had to.”

Fanning hoped her example might encourage more women to consider becoming firefighters.

“I think firefighter teams are very receptive to competent people who want to do their best,” she stated. “I would encourage anybody who is looking to pursue a career in [fire services] to talk to other firefighters, talk to other women firefighters … visit a local fire hall and do a ride-along. And plan your career path out: what do I have to do to get to where I want to be?”

Bessette said it is a real privilege to be able to work as a full-time firefighter at Chestermere’s fire department.

“It’s a lot of commitment,” she acknowledged, “but if you are willing to put in the work to be here, and you want to be here, most departments these days are really progressive in that way they want to have more diversity. 

“So if you think you can do it, and you want to put in that effort, just do it.”

Chestermere Fire Chief Jamie Coutts was thrilled to have six new full-time members on his fire team, including Fanning and Bessette.

“We are proud to say that this group of highly trained firefighters helps us bring new experience, levels of certification and diversity to the fight,” he said in a statement provided to the Rocky View Weekly.

“We were able to find and hire trained ACP (advanced care paramedics), PCP (primary care paramedics) [with] many years of fire experience, and our first two full-time female firefighters. We are truly excited to have these great team members join us and help advance our goal of protecting this vibrant, growing city.”