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No barriers standing in the way for Pacquet's female fire chief

Fire Chief Jodie Matthews of Pacquet is leading the way for women in the firefighting profession.
Fire Chief Jodie Matthews of Pacquet is leading the way for women in the firefighting profession. - Cory Hurley

Jodie Matthews proud to lead

PACQUET, NL - Jodie Matthews says the classification of "female" fire chief is not necessary to separate her from any other leader in the province, but she is proud of the title and its significance nonetheless.

There is not a lot the woman from Pacquet believes she can't do - especially not because she is a woman.

"I don't think gender matters at all in doing the job," she said. "We still have the issue with most people thinking it is a man's job, but I only think it matters that the job is getting done.

"I am not a boss. I am not their boss. A fire chief is simply a leader. If you can't lead your crew, there is simply no place for you."

Pacquet is a small, isolated town in White Bay on the Baie Verte Peninsula. Historically, it is a fishing and logging community.

Like many towns in this province with those roots, its story is one of a depleted and aging population. That's part of the reason Matthews is now its fire chief, but also why she says it's important to show young girls and other women of rural Newfoundland and Labrador they can do anything they set their minds to.

"That's a little bit touchy," said Matthews. "Ninety per cent of our community are senior citizens, and a lot of them still live in the day where females belong in the kitchen or raising kids."

There are no other women on the Pacquet fire department. Matthews is only aware of two other female fire chiefs ever being in the province, and neither are currently chief.

Community support

Throughout the community and on the department, Matthews says she has been accepted and supported.

"Almost every person I have spoken to and interacted with since November, they have been nothing but supportive," she said. "They believe that our fire department will exceed expectations. We are doing well."

Matthews signed on to the department as its secretary about five years ago. An active volunteer in the community, she naturally wanted to help out with one of the town's most predominant organizations. She went about her business in the background, at that point never really considering a front-line position with the department.

Last November, then-fire chief Colin Greenham resigned. Nobody stepped forward to fill the vacant position. Matthews eventually served as acting fire chief for the holiday season, and she has remained in the position since then.

"If your town does not have a fire department, you are not safe, but also home insurance will go through the roof," she said of why she stepped forward. "We are trying to keep our fire department together, so why not get involved. It is hard work, but it is rewarding."

There are 12 firefighters on the Pacquet Volunteer Fire Department, and she has found a replacement for her former secretarial duties. Most of the members are fishermen who have busy lives outside of the department, which poses one of the biggest challenges for the small department.

 

Members of the Pacquet Volunteer Fire Department participating in a training exercise.
Members of the Pacquet Volunteer Fire Department participating in a training exercise.

 

She considers herself a go-getter, somebody who gets things done. Those are valuable assets for a chief, but she was not about to lead a department without firefighting training. She has completed a two-day defensive firefighting training course, a basic defensive fire instructor course, training on the incident command system (ICS), and the fire department operations course. She continues to expand her training and qualifications, including a two-day session this past weekend in Springdale.

"If I am going to send my team out to fight a fire, if I am not skilled enough to do it, then I would not want to put them in danger as well," she said. "I will only send them out if I think it is safe enough for me to go."

Matthews acknowledges some of the training has been difficult, but she shows no signs of backing down. She may not be able to match some of the men in strength, she said, but it would be tough to find an equal in determination.

"Some people may say leave that to the men, because we are not strong enough to do it, but I believe anybody can do anything they put their mind to," she said.

"If you can throw on a 30-pound bunker suit, with a 30-pound breathing apparatus, and climb 40-feet up a ladder to haul somebody out through a burning building, I can do the same."

As far as her leadership abilities, she is a no-nonsense type of chief. She said she pushes members to complete and maintain their training. She stresses the importance of being professionals, she said, and that firefighters are not part of a social club.

"I am very proud," she said. "If I can make a difference for one person, that is a happy day.

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