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All-woman firefighting team makes history

Written by: Dale Hes

South Africa’s first all-female firefighting team, made up of women from disadvantaged backgrounds, is already standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other firefighters to put out blazes during the Western Cape’s fire season. 

With the world celebrating International Women's Day on the 8th of March, the Juliet Crew is Image: by Jurie Senekal shattering gender stereotypes by proving that women can tame raging fires. [Photo: Charl Steenkamp/NCC Environmental Services.]Juliet Crew is the end result of the All-Woman Wildland Firefighting Project, the brainchild of NCC Environmental Services.

Kylie Paul, superintendent of the team, says that she has been proud to witness the growth of the women. “In a very short period of time, the women went from shy and quiet, to proud and confident,” says Paul.

Sharne Maritz (19), a Juliet Crew firefighter, says that being part of the team has given her motivation for the future.

“In my community, we deal with a lot of gang violence, teenage pregnancy, youth unemployment and a high rate of poverty. Being part of this team has not only taken me away from my daily life, it has given me more drive for my future, she says.”

With 30 years of experience in wildfire management Dean Ferreira, the managing director of NCC Environmental Services says he has always wanted to offer women firefighters specialist training and their own quarters so that they could build self-belief in their capabilities and shatter the glass ceiling created by male firefighters.

In partnership with Chrysalis Academy, a youth development organisation formed by the Western Cape Provincial Government, NCC opened applications for a firefighting programme for at-risk females between the ages of 18 and 25. A team of 15 candidates were selected to become part of the Juliet Crew.

Over 90 percent of crew members come from female-headed households in Phillipi, Retreat, Mfuleni, Khayelitsha, Capricorn Park and Macassar, all of which have a legacy of poverty and violence.

The team recently took part in its first major operation when they helped battle a blaze in Noordhoek.

Charl Steenkamp, brand manager for NCC, says that the team performed exceptionally well.

“I witnessed them arriving on the scene, fully geared up and ready. They were immediately deployed and began operations with efficiency. This was their first time in a major operation, with helicopters flying and dumping water all around us and major burning happening not far from them. " Steenkamp says the Crew Juliet performed exceptionally and handled the pressures well, following the lead of their superintendent carefully.

Fire safety tips for you and your family

A small uncontrolled fire can quickly spread and become a threat to people’s lives and their property. Uncontrolled fires also occur in winter months, when there's a need to keep warm.

Prevention of fires

In order to prevent fires from starting or spreading, you should,

  • not leave open fires unattended and should use sand to kill the fire, make sure that your home has no illegal electrical connections and that multiplugs are not overloaded, as these can overheat causing sparks and fires,
  • tell someone who is playing carelessly with fires, matches or lighters to stop
  • know your emergency numbers to report veldfires in your area.

What to do when a fire starts inside your home?

  • Warn people inside the house to get out safely.
  • Help people to get out and stay out of harm's way.
  • If there is a lot of smoke, crawl out below the smoke to escape the fire.

How to put out a fire without water

  • A fire needs heat, oxygen and fuel to survive. Without one of these elements the fire will die.
  • If you don't have access to water or a fire extinguisher use sand or a wet blanket.
  •  If the fire occurs on your kitchen stove, try to smother the fire by placing a lid on top.
  • Never use water to kill an electrical fire. It's also handy to keep a bucket of clean sand ready outside your kitchen door, or if possible, a small fire extinguisher.

For more opportunities offered by NCC Environmental Services, follow their Facebook page @NCCEnviron *To find out more about the training offered by Chrysalis Academy, call 021 712 1023.