Heads turned as a pack of tall, athletically-built men walked into the Humber North cafeteria wearing matching navy T-shirts with “Humber Firefighting” branded on the back. About 20 of them sat down easily taking over an entire row in the cafeteria.
One slender woman sat among them with a nose piercing and a hot pink streak in her hair.
Mikheyla Lue-Kim, 21, is one of four female students in this year’s Fire and Emergency Service class at Humber. With 35 students in the program, the men outnumber the women almost ten to one.
It’s no surprise that women shy away from the field, with their lack of testosterone making it more difficult to gain muscle mass. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that a testosterone transdermal (cream) could even reverse muscle degradation in frail older men.
Lue-Kim’s confidence, however, overrides what she lacks in testosterone
“We all worked really hard to get into the program and academically we’re all equal,” she said.
This may be true, but in order to proceed to second semester, each student must pass the York University Firefighter Fitness test which involves dragging a 91-kg dummy 15 metres while weaving through pylons.
Ian Sim, retired Fire Chief and the Fire and Emergency program co-ordinator at Humber, said that only two of his stations had women in them when he retired 18 years ago.
Women are expected to perform the same test as the men to advance in the program.
“They do the same thing, but they might accomplish it differently,” Sim said. “It doesn’t matter as long as the outcome in the end is the same.”
Lue-Kim tends to use more of her lower body strength to support lifts.
“I had to use more of my legs to lift the ladder where as someone who is a little bit taller or is just better at lifting would use their upper body,” she said.
Lue-Kim’s classmate Aaron Carosi, 19, said that tweaking your technique to work with your body type is something the men also do.
“There could be bigger guys and smaller guys,” he said. “Some people find it easier to do it one way and some people find it easier to do it the other way.”
“In the end, it just gets done.”
Lue-Kim said there is a lot more to being a firefighter than physical strength. She said candidates are picked for their initiative, your attitude, your work ethic, your determination and your commitment.
Carosi agrees that firefighting is atmosphere heavily relies on team building.
“We don’t really look at it as individuals doing specific tasks…we’re all trying to achieve the same goal,” he said.
Students find support not only in each other, but in their school. Graduates gain access to the college’s equipment beyond graduation to help keep their skills sharp.
“There’s no shame in asking for help – we’re all there to help each other,” Lue-Kim said. “We’re a team and we’re a big family.”