Finding the Fire Within: Carolyn’s Story

As gathered by WorkStory Ambassador, Karli Steen

Carolyn Herrmans' path has taken her many different places. She had always seen herself as an optometrist; until a job shadowing left her tired and unfulfilled: "I did a Grade 10 job shadow at my optometrist’s office and thought it was a total bore. I could barely stay awake. I think a light switch went off in my head one day. I saw a fire and thought ‘This is it. This is what I'm meant to do.’ I haven't looked back since and don't ever plan on it."

 Carolyn went in blazing, on the path to becoming a firefighter. She initially wanted to be a smoke-jumper, which would put her right in the middle of the fight against forest fires. To do this, she went to Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alberta to take her Wildland Initial Attack Certification. She has continued to blaze her trail by taking courses in Orangeville at the Ontario Fire Academy, which led to further testing in Richmond, Texas.

I asked Carolyn to outline both training processes and one thing was clear; they were both humbling experience! She had this to say about her time in Alberta: "We did a lot of field experience. We'd get in a huge van and they'd take us deep in the woods. They dropped us off with a compass and a partner and made us try to find out way out of the woods. For testing we had to do a circuit. With a big pack on our back full of hose, we'd run 100m, empty handed and back and then run again with a motor that we would put in the water to suck it up and send out the hose. That thing was heavy. Over 100 lbs. We also lifted weights in our circuit. It wasn't overly hard but it was challenging for sure. I learned a lot about weather and wind. Different types of forestry and what to do when caught in bad situations. It was an amazing experience.  While I was out there the Slave Lake fire of 2011 was going on. Such a humbling experience. So many people gave what they could. I was sitting in the Edmonton bus terminal and a man with a guitar and a bag of apples was sitting there. That's literally all he had left. I gave him a hug."

 Regarding her experience in Texas, Carolyn told me: "I worked with 5 Americans and 4 Canadians - all male. For me, that pushes me to do my best. My two instructors were ex NFL players. The guy that owned the school created it because a couple years before he was called out to a fire. He ran out of air during that fire and called a mayday. He somehow survived that fire for over 30 minutes with no air. He literally is a miracle. So this school is meant to put us in bad situations and we're to get out of them. It included being trapped in a room at temperatures over 900 degrees and fully engulfed in smoke (hay smoke so it's not very harmful). We had to take our regulators out of our mask (the device that sends air to our mask) and last for 10 seconds. I panicked and ran for the door.  We hit the floor and sucked the air off it. We also did a man down scenario --  350 lb  man who needed to get out a window! They ran us until we almost puked. They pushed us to the breaking point. When we did a live fire we were pushed so hard I don't even remember coming out of the building. I came to in full bunker gear in a horse trough full of water and ice. It was back breaking for sure. But totally worth it. I have the upmost respect for everyone in this line of work. It showed me who I want to be and shaped me into who I am today. I wouldn't be as confident or strong without those instructors."

Carolyn further described how the same leader who pushed her limits, also pushed her forward: "He would get in my face and start screaming 'We don't want you here. You're a girl. Nobody's gonna hire a girl'. He's screaming this at me while I lift a 60 lb baby (a big metal dumbbell) over my head more than 200 times while in full gear. He'd scream at us all day long. He knew how to push my buttons. He knew how to make me feel like I wanted this more than anything in the world. Essentially I found the fire in me and I found who I was as a person. And I love helping people." 

As Carolyn continues to follow the path of firefighting, she works as both a patient transfer assistant for Voyageur and a waitress at the Keg. She is not deterred by the extra work, as she is helping others in all the positions. She takes a little from every experience, and applies it to everyday life. She hopes that what she learns will help her achieve the ultimate goal of becoming a HAZMAT specialist.

For anyone interested in following the path of a firefighter, Carolyn had this to say: "it's tough. If you think you're going to get a job right out of school think again. I'm going on my 3rd year and I'm still trying. It's expensive – at a minimum, $200 to apply to each fire department. It's tough but stay true to who you are. Do it for you. Don't do it because of the "glory" aspect of the job. There's nothing glorious about it. It's tough and dirty and I love it. I can't wait to sit there and hear that tone go off. And to feel the rush of my first fire and first save! Get all the training you can. Stand out from everyone else. Be yourself."