Surrey’s first professional female firefighter caps off inspiring career

Nancy Innes, who was one of two women to be hired in 1992, retires as captain this week

Nancy Innes, 53, is looking back on a great idea.

Twenty-seven years ago, when she was studying chemistry and biochemistry at Simon Fraser University, she spotted a poster at the university about the Surrey Fire Service hiring firefighters. “That’s the first time I ever thought about it, and I just thought it would be a really great job. I just thought, I’m going to go for it.”

She was hired on Sept. 14, 1992, along with Isabel Ruediger, to become Surrey’s first professional female firefighters. Ruediger is currently captain at Hall 4 in Guildford and Innes is retiring as captain of Hall 8 in Cloverdale – where she leads a crew of 16 firefighters over four shifts – at 8 a.m. Thursday, after her last shift.

“Hopefully it’s not too crazy of a night shift,” she chuckles.

Virginia MacDonald was the first woman hired to the department, as a secretary. Jean Turley and Heather Beaton were the first volunteer firefighters in Surrey, signing on in 1960.

But Innes and Ruediger are the first professionals, working full time.

“There was no women in the Lower Mainland at that time, if my memory serves right,” Innes told the Now-Leader. “There were volunteer firefighters around, but no professionals. We were in the same group – we were in a group of 16.

“I didn’t know, when I applied, that there was no women, until I started doing more research,” she recalled.

Today Surrey has 14 female firefighters out in the field, fighting fires, of about 360 firefighters all told. But counting dispatchers, Surrey Fire Service currently has 40 women in uniform.

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Last call? The alarm rings at Hall 8, and Nancy Innes and her crew are on the road to help someone. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

Innes wants women to know that firefighting is a good career option for them.

“There’s still not a lot of women that apply to be firefighters. I think it’s important that they know it is a viable career for women. Hopefully they’ll see more women on the trucks and that sort of thing. If you grow up only seeing men on fire trucks everywhere you look, you probably don’t think of it as a women’s career, but it really is. It’s been a really good career.

“It’s really hard physical work, and it’s exciting,” she noted. “I’ve had people come up to me – like at Guildford mall one day I was going through with a fire crew and this young bride came up and said, ‘Thanks for saving my dad’s life.’ We had done CPR on him a month before, and he had survived. We never know, because they go away in the ambulance and we don’t ever see them again.

“Another month later the dad came by, and said thank you. So that was pretty cool.”

Besides Cloverdale, Innes has also worked in Guildford, Newton, Whalley, and South Surrey.

When she became a professional firefighter, at age 26, she said, she didn’t encounter much resistance from her male colleagues.

“There were certain firefighters that weren’t as happy about it, but mainly not, because Surrey was growing so fast I think it helped, like there was lots of new firefighters coming in, it was quite progressive.”

Innes lives in Surrey. Her husband and fellow firefighter Dave Baird, who is captain at Hall 13, expects to retire next year. They have three sons, and Innes looks forward to traveling – first stop, Portugal.

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What will Innes miss most about her job?

“Definitely the people I work with, I’ll miss…the camaraderie,” she said. “I like going to calls that you have to figure things out at, there’s lots going on and you have to figure out what your plan is. I won’t miss the tragedy side of things. Like death, and people in pain, you know, you don’t like seeing that.”

What has she seen change, from a female firefighter’s perspective, over the course of her lengthy career in Surrey?

“It’s changed technology wise, even the trucks and that sort of thing, but as far as being women? There’s more women’s bathrooms. Like the newer halls are more accommodating so we have women’s locker rooms and stuff in the newer halls,” she said. “The older halls, they still might have only one room with a shower or whatever, but you just lock the door, same as in a house. They are trying to get more women’s clothing, and that sort of thing, which is nice. Our turnout gear is all custom, so it fits you perfectly, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. The testing is similar – it’s the same for everyone, for whoever applies. Same standard for everyone.”

Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas says Innes “is proof that women can have long and fulfilling careers as firefighters. As Nancy moves into a well-earned retirement, I know her pioneering work will inspire other women to fill her place within the ranks of the Surrey Fire Service.”

Mayor Doug McCallum described her as “truly a trail blazer and inspiration for women who want to make a career out of firefighting.”

Incidentally, our interview at Hall 8 was abruptly ended by an alarm concerning a medical call and Innes and her crew were swiftly out the door.

A busy Surrey firefighter, to the last.



tom.zytaruk@surreynowleader.com

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