Katoitoi In Their Prime: Balancing gender among Kiwi firefighters

Kerri Pring joined Kirwee Volunteer Brigade at 16-years-old. She is now a senior firefighter and fire investigator.

Kerri Pring joined Kirwee Volunteer Brigade at 16-years-old. She is now a senior firefighter and fire investigator.

Early in her firefighting career, Kerri Pring was told by a former fireman she would amount to nothing. The brigade was no place for a woman.

"He said to me 'You'll never make it anywhere, you were never meant to be in the brigade'," Pring said.

The low number of female firefighters was brought to light in The Brigade, a film showing at the French Film Festival. It follows one woman's journey as the only woman in a fire brigade in the south of France.

In New Zealand, women make up less than 4 per cent of career firefighters and 16 per cent of volunteers. Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) helped bring The Brigade to the festival to promote firefighting as a career for Kiwi women.

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Pring joined the Kirwee Volunteer Brigade when she was 16-years-old. Her father was deputy chief and was hesitant in case she was seen to get favourable treatment.

"I always used to hear my dad talk about jobs they went to, you know, big fire jobs, and thought that was pretty amazing. When everyone else is running away they are the ones running towards it," she said.

"So I went to a few training nights and decided it was what I wanted to do. I got mum to sign the consent form, but my dad came round to it eventually."

Now 31, Pring has become senior firefighter at Kirwee and a fire risk management officer for the Canterbury Area Team.

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"Physically I was able to do all the same jobs as everybody else and I was able to deal with the emotional aspects too," she said.

"I can't hide it, I did struggle. Some of the older gentlemen who were still part of our brigade, or still a part of the wider brigade, felt that females were obviously weaker in all senses of the word."

Pring said public perception was of "a fireman, not a firefighter" and people would often talk to her male colleagues on a job, even if she was in charge.

In June 2015, Women in Fire and Emergency New Zealand (WFENZ) was formed to create a female firefighters forum. Pring became a regional representative and encourages women to get involved.

"You can't be what you can't see, so if we're not seeing a lot of women out there riding those big red trucks, you don't know it's a job for you."

Jackie Breen, FENZ national adviser for women's development, said women had been in urban and rural fire services since the 1940s, but numbers remained low.

"We have a long way to go to ensure our organisation reflects our communities and is on par with our colleagues in other emergency services in terms of gender balance," Breen said.

The Brigade is showing at Hoyts Riccarton on Wednesday night and on Monday morning. 

 - Stuff


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