Behind Austin Conquergood’s safety visor just a hint of a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth as he stands in close proximity to the flames ripping from the car’s interior.
That happiness stems from the fact six weeks ago the Princess Margaret grad got the call saying he had been chosen to fill one of two, new, full-time career positions with Penticton Fire Rescue.
“It was a great feeling to get that call, it really is a dream come true that’s for sure,” said Conquergood, 22, as the sweat poured down his face after completing the burning car training exercise at the Number 202 Hall. “I was a paid on call (auxiliary) member for about three years and this is what I’ve always wanted to. It’s awesome and you couldn’t ask for a better bunch of guys.”
He and the department’s first female member, Issy “Izzy” Venables, have been undergoing an intensive training regime in preparation for their placement on the regular department roster.
“Just working with the crew that I’m going to be working with and getting those skills and getting their knowledge is critical,” said Conquergood. “As a paid on call we don’t get the hands-on training everyday so this definitely helps. Getting here we may be 90, 95 per cent but we want to get to that 100 per cent and this is the way to do it.”
Capt. Wayne McKenzie was supervising Conquergood’s training in this particular session.
“So today we’re preparing Austin for his career as a firefighter with live fire drills just so he gets used to all of our equipment and that will prepare him for success in his career,” said McKenzie. “This training facility is top notch, there’s no replacement for a firefighter like Austin to be able to experience the heat, the smoke, the flames, there is just no replacement for that in terms of being prepared for an actual fire, a real event.”
According to deputy chief Dennis Smith, the new recruits are doing well and likely less than a week away from a spot on the regular department roster.
“We’re building on that (previous firefighting skills training) and so now what we do is introduce them to some of the rescue tasks that we do, the swift water and ice rescue. Both of them were out on the ice earlier this year. They’ll do auto accident and they’ll be live fire training with our crews just to build everyone’s trust and confidence in each other doing that hot work.
“We start off slow and easy and thoughtful and the comfort or confidence level is pretty easily attained because as auxiliaries they’ve already been relying on that relationship to acquire that job that they have now.”
For Izzy Venables, 31, fighting fires is not new, especially after four years as a Penticton Auxiliary and a decade in the forestry wildfire business travelling throughout the province and U.S. on the front lines.
“I decided to switch because I think that I saw more of a future in structural (firefighting) and I knew that’s really where my interests lay I wanted get more into the first responders site of things out of the seasonal gig,” said Venables. “It also really opens up the doors to things like rope rescue training or swift water training or ice rescue training. Also there’s the MVA side o f things the medical side of things.”
She is also no stranger to the school of hard knocks, having played women’s rugby at the premier level however is now transitioning to the less damaging world of (non contact) standup paddle board racing.
No matter what she is doing, Venables enjoys the camaraderie of working with others.
“It’s a real team dynamic atmosphere here. I was able to put my experience on a wild (fire) line crew and through my experience playing sports, bring it into this kind of team atmosphere at the fire department,” she said. “It’s huge for me, I kind of think, for myself, being in a team atmosphere gives you an opportunity to strive to be the best person you can be but also motivate your peers at the same time. It’s a pretty big part of the puzzle.
“Penticton is pretty lucky we have some career staff who are really well versed not only in firefighting but in other areas as well and I’ve kind of been a bit of a sponge and absorbed as much knowledge as they have to give.”
Having volunteered at the Soupateria, SPCA and working with St. John Ambulance Brigade she is looking forward to the department’s outside participation in community activities.
And as far as the gender issue, Venables is quite at home working in “a man’s” world and does not feel any added pressure being the only female firefighter in town.
“I’ve always been the female amongst the men so I’m pretty used to it, not a big change,” she said. “For me, overall when I look at the big picture, being the only female, there are young girls and young men looking towards me, seeing me kind of blazing a path and that gets me a little bit excited.
“For me personally, I’m just coming to work every day and learning as much as I can and do the best job that I can do and being able to serve the people of Penticton is just such a big plus and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”