Monday, April 22, 2024

A burning desire to fight fires


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JUDGING BY THE mischievous fires she would constantly light around her childhood home, Natasha Forde’s father always said his daughter would be either an arsonist” or “a firefighter”.

The elder Forde was right on the second count. 

At that time though, the idea of being a firefighter was farthest from the mind of the female member of the Barbados Fire Service who was named Firefighter of the Year 2016. The accolade awarded “For dedication to the Barbados Fire Service and Fire Prevention Unit” recognises the 38-year-old’s dedication to a job that consumes most of her life.

Seated before a desk at the Probyn Street Fire Service headquarters Thursday, during a quiet morning when there were no alarms going off, Forde, in a reflective mood, said: “I hate fires. . . . The memories, the time you would have put in – you lose a lot with a home fire.” Over the 11 years as a qualified firefighter she has seen enough of the destruction, loss and, most of all, felt the pain of fire victims to have reached this position.

“I remember standing up on the scene of a fire and crying when I realised that the family had lost everything and to see how devastated the owner of the house was.”

It may not have been the kind of emotional experience the former clerical officer in the Fire Service bargained for when she followed a suggestion by a senior fire officer that she should join those ranks.

Adrenalin rush

“Every time the emergency alarm went off, I would get an adrenalin rush” she said, while admitting the eventual transition from a desk job to the rigours of firefighting was “challenging”.

The five-foot, six-inch young woman who weighs 156 pounds, was entering a male-dominated field in which, she said, at the beginning she sensed the need to prove she was equal to her male colleagues in performance. 

She still maintains: “You always have to be on top of your game in a field dominated by men.” But she acknowledged the support given by male firefighters who recognised her determination to be as professional and able as they were and who provided the necessary encouragement.

It was the reason she became so distraught on one of her earliest firefighting assignments when she suddenly found herself cut off from her male colleague from whom she could get no response after she had called out for him several times. The scene was a grass fire and she was acting in a support role, when she was overcome by smoke and was cut off from the other firefighter. 

Oblivious to her own distress caused by burning lungs resulting from excessive smoke inhalation and uncontrollable breathing, she frantically attempted to scale the guard wall which separated the two of them, all the while calling out her partner’s name. That incident had a happy ending.

Forde considers every fire a training and learning opportunity for a fire officer. Laughing, she recalled her first fire-fighting experience. It was a house fire, and following the instructions of her senior officer she began to unravel the hose from the back of the fire tender when “one of the boys on the block” jumped in to assist, yanking the hose from her hand, and saying to her: “You too pretty to be doing this.”

Compliments aside, this was Forde’s big moment and she was not about to allow anyone to steal it. “Please move and let me do my job” she politely told the overzealous man, while recovering the hose from him.

Nowadays when the alarm sounds at the Probyn Street Fire Station she may only slide down the station’s fire pole to join in a firefighting exercise when there is a shortage of staff or when she recognises that her additional input is necessary.

As the only female driver in the Barbados Fire Service, she could easily be the one scurrying up to the controls of the 20 000 kilogram fire tender No. 5 carrying 200 litres of water and 3 000 litres of foam, all the while her adrenalin pumping at the speed of the vehicle she is driving to respond to yet another emergency.

Most times though, as a member of the five-member Fire Prevention Unit to which she was subsequently assigned, she is out there doing public education. Going into private homes, businesses and schools, telling and demonstrating to people how to avoid fires, teaching fire safety, is giving her a new level of satisfaction.

“We in the unit are working to ensure that the general public understands the importance of keeping their premises safe from fire.” Instruction is given on the installation and safe use of fire extinguishers and  smoke alarms, and Forde advised the public they should feel free to call the Fire Prevention Unit of the Barbados Fire Service for advice on placement of gas cylinders, smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and similar equipment. 

Smoke alarm

“If there is one message I would like to send out to Barbadians, it is that I would like to see every home with a smoke alarm installed,” she said.

Part of her responsibility is to monitor and ensure that businesses are compliant with the Safety and Health at Work Act and she said: “My adrenalin rush comes now from going out there and educating people.”

Forde is the mother of well known 17-year-old Barbadian cyclist Tremaine Forde-Catwell. She also has a five-year-old daughter and is grateful for the support given by family such as her parents Margot Forde and Charles Jordan, aunt Rose Headley and friends like Sherryann Ifill. It is they who often step in and take care of her young daughter’s needs when extended work hours force her to be on the job.

Life for this firefighter is busy indeed. The former Springer Memorial student is a qualified emergency medical technician, an instructor in the Fire Service and a CPR instructor with the Barbados Heart and Stroke Foundation.  She is aware of her daughter’s attempts to monopolise what little free time she may have, but she is more than happy to oblige. 

Through it all, she manages to squeeze her favourite pastime, deep sea diving, into those rare recreational moments. Otherwise, on those treasured occasions she finds herself with still a little  bit more downtime, she may be the lone figure spotted exhaling, renewing, refreshing, while  just idly gazing at a sunset. (GC)  


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