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Standing tall in her duty to serve


RACHELLE AGARD

Standing tall in her duty to serve

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A female fire officer is not a rare sight today, but 24 years ago it was. Angela Etienne-Riveira joined the Barbados Fire Service (BFS) in 1991 and has not looked back since.

“It all started with me liking the outdoors, and in terms of being in the fire service, it was initially the need for a job. I had applied to the police force and the fire service but only got a response from the fire service. Over the 24 years it has had its ups and downs, but I like it. I like it because of the outdoors and getting to be outside,” she said, smiling.

Trinidadian born Etienne-Riveira, who currently holds the rank of fire officer, has been trained to do everything, both on and off station. On location where she works at the Airport Fire Station, she would clean equipment, check the truck, be involved in lectures or any activity involved with station duties.

On the outside, she would engage in tours or operations dealing with both fires and emergencies – these may be special services which involve accidents or a special service which involves animals.

Training is a must and Etienne-Riveira’s had the “fantastic opportunity”  in 2013 to go to South Carolina, United States. where she did air drone firefighting. “My last overseas training was tedious having a packed 40-hour week,” she said.

“It was go from beginning to end; it was truly a lot of work but very rewarding.”

The fire officer has also helped in training recruits. “It is challenging because as the officer in charge I have to be more disciplined. [The recruits] are learning from me so that means my uniform has to be cleaner and well pressed and my shoes need to be shinier. To me it’s harder on the instructor than on the recruit.”

Fighting a fire is no easy task and for our local female firefighter it is no different. She said during recruiting the one thing they were taught was to always be aware of what is burning so you know how to deal with it.

“In terms of a grass fire we look for the way it spreads. If it is a threat to houses or people we fight it down wind, otherwise we fight the fire up wind. In terms of structures we have to ensure there is no spreading of the fire, so we concentrate on minimising fire spread. Although there have been a few chemical fires in Barbados I have never been present at any and in terms of aircraft, we have never had any aircraft fires.

“No two days are alike and putting my life on the line each day is the furthest thing from my mind. What you see people running away from, as a firefighter you run toward. When the event is happening you don’t think about it, maybe upon reflection, but never during,” Angela said.

Admitting there is mental anguish associated with the job, usually after a traumatic experience, she said there were counsellors from Network Services who are on hand if needed. “Death is the one thing that used to affect me the most. Thinking that driving I could be in an accident, which is usually on reflection, I have never thought that it could be my son or husband or anyone close,” she said as her eyes took on a faraway look.

Asked how she juggles family life and work, the 50-year-old with both Barbadian and St Lucian heritage, smiled and said that both her husband of 21 years and her

15-year-old son were very supportive. “My husband also works shift at the Regional Security System and he was a former soldier, so he understands what it means to work on a shift basis.”

When her son was a mere four months old she returned to her world of hoses, boots and fires. “I used to express the milk and at the end of the shift I would rush home to feed him. The usual urges a woman would get to bond with her newborn babe did not bother me as I left my son with my mother rather than my husband. Doing that I could go about my duty and not have to worry about him because I knew he was well taken care of,” she said, laughing.

As one of the pioneers in the BFS, being the only female on duty has never fazed her. Being a sister to four brothers, an aunt to nephews and a wife and mother to a husband and son, it has never been a bother to her. In fact she enjoys the attention sometimes and can socialise accordingly.

Acknowledging that females have challenges to overcome that a male doesn’t, and not only physically, she said, ensuring that they are a co-worker to all is paramount. “In this field you have to operate as you would with your brother or sister and be able to trust that person especially out in the field.”

As for her advice to anyone, especially a woman wanting to enter her field, she had these words to impart, “Be enthusiastic. Know your job. Know what you are supposed to do. These were some of the things told to me during my training and now I pass it on to anyone thinking about coming into my field, especially women. If you are not enthusiastic about what you do and you don’t like it, then you will make mistakes.”

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