Volunteer Blog: Janis and her experience as a volunteer firefighter
We all understand the importance of our first responders, especially those who volunteer. Here’s the story of Janis Forbes (Personal Lines)
In 1997 Janis moved to Seba Beach outside of Edmonton. She didn’t know anyone and wasn’t familiar with the community but she lived next door to the Fire Department. For a few years, she saw ads in the paper calling for volunteer fire fighters. Time passed until one day out of nowhere she got up the nerve and decided to attend a meeting.
She joined the department first as a Junior Firefighter. There were 16-20 firefighters in the department; all volunteering anywhere from 2-3 hours per week. As the rookie, she did whatever needed to be done from directing traffic on highways during extrications to any other “rookie” work they could drum up. During this time, a fire broke out in the brick building at Sun Gro Peet Moss. And as bricks flew every which way, she worked to keep people safely back.
In her second year with the department she began heavy training. The training (referred to as 1001) and is standard for all professional firefighters – pretty intense stuff. For two years she trained, also completing her EMR. Her training consisted of simulated burning buildings, extrication of dummies from vehicles and when it came time to show everyone what she was made of, her team came second place in a firefighter competition.
She described herself as “the old lady compared to the young guns” in the group, but she proved she was a forced to be reckoned with because in her fourth year with the department she rose through the ranks to Captain (the first female to do so in her department.) This was a big deal because Janis was no longer responding to orders; she was the one making them! She was no longer controlling traffic, she was making life and death decisions.
During her time as Captain there was a huge forest fire off of Highway 16 near Gainford. She was brand new in her role; she was top rank and the fire jumped the highway. Remaining her composure, she concentrated on providing appropriate orders without delay and called in other departments to help. Though the fire was aggressive, they didn’t lose any buildings – not even a house! This same summer she recalled responding practically every day to calls. They responded to accidents, fires and accidents at the coalmine.
She recalled that during the time she was a first responder the “jaws of life” were so large and unwieldy that men had to use them; women were not typically strong enough to maneuver them. But that didn’t stop her from responding to brutal accidents and providing comfort & calmness during tragedy. In 2009 she received an award for an incredible 10 years of volunteer work. During her time she helped put out more than 100 fires and responded to more than 100 accidents per year. She even helped during the CN derailment in Wabamun Lake (oil tanks in water; they were the first responders; no one was hurt.)
You may ask “why would she get involved in volunteer work like this?”
As a former nurse, she wasn’t fazed by high-stress, tragic situations. “You’ve got to be a bit bossy,” she says; claiming that both friends and colleagues would describe her as bossy. But what also helped her succeed in her volunteer role was her dedication, the ability to remain emotionally strong during tough situations and a thirst to absorb every bit of training and resources offered. However, she believes that anyone who wants to volunteer as a firefighter should. And stated, “If I can do it, anyone can!” (Though some would probably argue that!)
Highlights from her volunteer experience include responding to the CN rail derailment, the big fire that jumped the highway and helping STARS land several times (this was during its infancy.) And when asked the absolute highlight of her volunteer experience she answered, “The people. No bond you can ever make with others that could be as strong as those who are first responders. There’s stuff you see and do together that no one can understand.”
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