July will mark the 30th anniversary with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services for District Chief Shirley Benson. Looking back at her career, she fondly says that it was amazing and rewarding, but nothing out of the ordinary.
However, there was in fact something a little different about Shirley’s career. When she joined the service in July of 1988, she was only the second woman in all of Canada to be part of a professional fire service.
“I remember when I joined, there were some men that had gone 30 years without working with a female, and there were those that had their doubts about if I could do the job,” says Shirley. “But most of those people who had the biggest doubts, also became my biggest supporters.”
According to CBC, three percent of firefighters in the country are women – which is about 600 for the whole country.
“I don’t see gender barriers in firefighting, but I do see size and strength barriers,” adds Shirley. “There’s pretty rigorous physical testing and other requirements to becoming a firefighter, and those high standards need to be met regardless of gender.”
In her almost-30 year career, Shirley has now also hit a couple more milestones. She is currently the longest serving woman on a professional fire service in Canada. And, at a local level, as of February, she is the first woman to be promoted to a district chief position within Edmonton Fire Rescue Services. Shirley worked her way through the ranks during her career, spending time at every level from firefighter to firefighter qualified, then captain and station captain, and now district chief.
“Gender diversity and cultural diversity is important to our fire service. Through outreach to all diverse communities, we aim to raise awareness that Edmonton Fire Rescue Services welcomes applications from everyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity,” says Fire Chief Ken Block. “About 7 per cent of our staff is female, from firefighters to fire prevention staff, from dispatchers to training staff. District Chief Benson successfully completed and qualified as an Edmonton firefighter and is a wonderful example of a woman who has had a long and successful career with Edmonton Fire.”
Although Shirley has been there to mentor new women who have joined EFRS, she says that it doesn’t matter who the member is, “mentorship is for everyone, women and men alike. We serve the same purpose – to keep Edmontonians safe, and for that, we are all equal.”