How I Made It

Suzanne Barry, Firefighter

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A photo of firefighter Suzanne Barry

Suzanne Barry; Fort McMurray, Alta.

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

When people call 911, we show up. In a nutshell.

Where did you go to school and what did you study? 

I did my emergency medical technician (EMT) training at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alta. in 2009, and went to fire school at Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta. in 2012.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

After I finished the EMT program, I wanted to get started working right away, so I basically took whatever job I could get in my field. My first gig was doing remote work in the oilsands in Fort McMurray in a mobile treatment centre. It was basically a Ford F-350 with a small area in the box of the truck with medical supplies. I would work three weeks away at camp, and one week off to come back home. It didn’t pay well and I was not very busy, but I met other people and different contacts in emergency services that eventually snowballed into getting me where I am today with the Fort McMurray Fire Department.

What was your BIG break into firefighting? How did you land it?

After working as an EMT in the oilsands for a few years and not getting anywhere with my fire department applications, I decided it was time to go to fire school and get the rest of my firefighter training in order to get a leg up on the competition for future applications. Almost as soon as I finished fire school, the Fort McMurray fire department posted a hiring. I applied and this time made it through the process successfully and landed the job I have now.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

I was on my way to Edmonton when I got the call to inform me I got the Fort McMurray job. This was my third time going through the application process with the Fort McMurray Fire Department, which consists of an aptitude test, a physical and an interview, so when I saw the phone number I was instantly nervous. To hear the HR woman tell me they would like to offer me a job was such a great feeling—all my perseverance had paid off.

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

I would say probably just not being able to get hired right away. What a lot of people don’t realize about the fire service is how difficult it is to get hired on. Especially in bigger cities, there are thousands and thousands of applicants for maybe 10 or 20 positions. Most people don’t get hired on their first try and that can be really discouraging. For me personally, the first two times I applied with the city of Fort McMurray, I didn’t have my fire training. I had no idea what it was like to wear bunker gear let alone do an intense physical test while wearing bunker gear. And it’s not enough to just complete the physical, you are also competing with women and men from all over to get that interview spot. Going to fire school for me helped so much with that aspect of it, and ultimately helped me land the job.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

It’s so cliché but if you want something bad enough, then go get it. Do everything you can to achieve that goal. There’s always something you can be doing or learning in our field. Sitting stagnant waiting for the next posting to hopefully get hired on is not enough. Take the shitty jobs, get experience, make contacts, take a training course.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

That to be an effective EMT you need to hide your emotions and be more tough. It’s not true at all. It completely depends on the situation. Of course, there are times when you need to be stern or “tough” with your patients, or simply hide your emotions on a particularly sad or emotional call. But being empathetic to the patient who needs it can sometimes be the difference between them opening up to you and diffusing their anger or sadness versus fueling their anger and escalating the situation in a negative way.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

I don’t know if I would necessarily call it a barrier, but I definitely felt that because I’m a woman, I had to prove myself a lot more before I was truly accepted. Not with everyone, but with certain people. I take pride in my job as an EMT and as a firefighter and I think once those people saw that, they knew I was there for the right reasons and that I could be an attribute to the department.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it?

I do make a fair wage. Our fire department is a part of a union, so our wage is not dependent on anything individual. We all start at the same wage and as we progress through the ranks, our wages increase.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

That we’re lazy. I feel like you can find laziness in any and every generation. Personally, my coworkers and my entire group of friends is mostly made up of career women and men as well as mothers and fathers and people who hustle hard to make the best lives possible for themselves and their families. I know how hard I had to work to get where I am today, and I try to never to assume anyone else has had it easier than me.

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