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Siobhan Flanigan is the first female Deputy Chief Fire Officer in Thames Volunteer Fire Brigade’s history. Siobhan says she wants to normalise women in the service. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

Feminism and fire fighting for new deputy

The softly-spoken, petite woman sitting in the Thames Volunteer Fire Brigade office is not the image of a stereotypical firefighter. But Siobhan Flanigan, Thames’ newly-appointed Deputy Chief Fire Officer, is working on changing that perception. 

“I’ve been quite mindful that there is always going to be a little bit of a focus on me, being a female in this space,” Siobhan said. 

“But I find it all really quite awkward. I’m like, it’s just a thing, that should all be normal anyway.”

As well as being the first female to be appointed to the Deputy Chief role in Thames, Siobhan is also a representative of the Regional Women’s Advisory Network for Fire and Emergency NZ. 

“We really support inclusivity, changing the narrative and changing the language that we use,” she said. 

“So instead of saying firemen: just normalising it that we’re firefighters, because you can’t be what you can’t see. We strongly encourage our management to make those changes as well.” 

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Siobhan has her personal reasons for wanting to be such a role-model, despite her discomfort in the spotlight. 

“I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter and it needs to be different for her. She needs to see that it’s normal and that it’s safe to put yourself out there in a male-dominated environment,” she said. 

“In an ideal world we’d have a 50:50 ratio within our brigade. We’re all people; we’re volunteers, we want to donate our time, we want to put out fires.” 

The Thames brigade, though, has always been a welcoming space for Siobhan and other women, and she credits the support of chief Greg Rendall and all the firefighters. 

“I think we’ve got six female brigade members and it’s just never been an issue,” she said. 

“It’s a really interesting space to work in, and it makes me feel really lucky being in this brigade, seeing the support that I’ve been given that others might not have.” 

Women have a lot to offer the service, Siobhan said. 

“You’ve got to have a little bit of smarts, physical strength, and a lot of drive. The physical side of things – I think that anyone can do it. It’s more about technique. No matter your stature, you can make it work for you.” 

Determination is one of Siobhan’s driving factors as well. When she began at the station 15 years ago, she was only four or five months postpartum. 

“I just bought a hose back home and ran up and down my driveway with it, rolled it up… I found it quite hard but it was a really good distraction to me, to own back a little bit of myself,” she said. 

“My [children] don’t know any different, they’ve kind of just grown up around it.”

There have been a few unexpected moments over the years though, inevitable in a position with so much variety. 

“First house fire will always stand out. That was just a moment where all my training was put into action, and I don’t think that anything could have prepared me mentally for what we were turning up to,” Siobhan said. 

“We train for the fire itself, but you don’t train for the people whose house it is, and you don’t train for the neighbours and the traffic congestion… There’s so much more than just a house fire going on. 

“House fires, medical emergencies, car crashes, hazardous substance calls, cat stuck on roof, patient lifts, false alarms, rubbish fires, chimney fires – [it’s a] pretty big variety. And with weather events we are on the go all the time. I think with Cyclone Gabrielle we had 15 or 16 calls in a day.” 

Part of what keeps Siobhan going is the strong bond she’s formed with her crew members. 

“Sometimes we can take those hard calls a lot harder, [but] we come back here and we have a good solid debrief,” she said. 

“[And] the family support is massive, for every one of our members. They keep things ticking. We leave birthdays, we leave Christmas Day… The kids sometimes miss out on having mum around but that’s just how it goes.”

For anyone who’s interested in joining the brigade, whatever their gender, Siobhan said she’d encourage them to give it a go.  

“I think that we all play a part in bettering society,” she said. 

“Just knowing that I’m helping someone… That person’s going to remember the person from the fire brigade who held their hand while they were being cut out of a car. We’re privileged to be in the position that we are.”