You don’t have to be a superhero, when community calls

Caroline Ross became Staffin’s first female firefighter after passing the breathing apparatus course.

Retained fire crews throughout the Highlands are looking to bolster their ranks. Adam Gordon spoke to Staffin’s first female firefighter, who is keen to spark interest among women…..

“I am just a normal woman from Staffin, I just want others to think, ‘if she can do it, I can do it,” says Caroline Ross, who recently became the first-ever woman to join the Staffin Fire Brigade.

The 30-year-old former Navy medical assistant spoke to the Free Press about the intense training she underwent, the pressure of passing her exams, the importance of representing her community and her hopes of inspiring more women to join the fire service.

“The first few times, your heart is pounding – it is nerve-wrecking, and you want to get it right,” said Caroline as she recalled an immersive training exercise.

“The breathing apparatus course forms part of your three-year training to become a firefighter. I joined in May this year – so in three-years’ time I will be a fully-qualified retained firefighter.

“The course is the first one you have to do after the initial task-to-task management which is a two-week introduction where you learn about the hoses, ladders and the protocols.

“After that you get put onto a breathing apparatus course – that’s when you really start to learn about how to fight fires and how buildings burn – and, of course, the main priority of saving lives.

“But you must remember the protocols. They give you a search route before you go in, and it is usually a very simple one so you can remember it when you are in the building.

“You have to touch the walls throughout the search – touch the doors, and any other substantial things that you can remember as you could be going in blind into a smoke-filled compartment.

“If you take your hand away you are going to end up in no-man’s land, and that’s when people go on to fail the course, or worse – get into trouble in real life.”

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While Caroline passed the course, she revealed that there was more riding on her success than just personal pride.

Had Caroline been unsuccessful, the Staffin station would no longer have the numbers to be classed as ‘fully operational’ 

She added: “I was thinking ‘if I don’t pass this exam, then there’s not going to be any cover for the north-east of Skye other than Portree.’ And even then, a fire can escalate so quickly.”

Thankfully the added heat of passing the course for the good of the local community has been extinguished. But Caroline says that the idea of ‘giving something back’, is a real motivation for the retained crew.

“I had done a bit of firefighting before, when I was in the navy, and I hated it – it was so stressful,” she admits.

“But then on my return home – I have been back about five years now – I realised that there were hardly any members and no cover for my area.

“I am not joining the firefighter brigade because I have a passion for firefighting – I mean who wants to go into a burning building? But you do it to provide a bit of a safety net for the people in your community.”

Caroline highlighted the Fair Isle as an exemplar of community spirit with 10 of its 46 residents involved in the local fire brigade.

Following her success on the course, the Staffin Fire Brigade are now fully operational, and Caroline says they can now count on her when she is called upon.

She said: “Even though I am still in training, I will be able to attend call-outs and they can rely on me.

“If the team were required to enter a building, myself, and Angus Murray, the other new member, we would be able to go in to fight a fire or retrieve a casualty – if it was safe to do so.”

Although her addition to Staffin Fire Brigade has enabled it to operate, Caroline believes that greater involvement from people across the island is the key to sustaining the vital service.

“One of the lads who was on the course with me was from the Fair Isle, and he told me there are 46 people living there and 10 of them are in the fire brigade. It is amazing.

“I think it would be great if the same thing happened in all the communities here on Skye, if more people were encouraged to join it would take the pressure off the others.

“In the Staffin area there is a population of around 500 people – but there are only four of us in the local fire brigade.”

Touching on her position as the first woman to join the Staffin Fire Brigade, Caroline was keen to use her own experience to encourage others who may feel there are barriers to prevent them getting involved.

She added: “I am used to working in male-dominated environments, and I think for a lot of women it is intimidating, and you can see why, but I would love more women to join. 

“I have already been trying to recruit people. I was recently at a wedding and said to the girls there that it is such a good thing to do. 

“You have to have a reasonable level of fitness, but you don’t have to be a superhero.”

She added: “I would like to set an example of what you can do if you really want to.

“I am just a normal woman from Staffin.

“So hopefully if other females want to join but feel a bit intimidated, they’ll see me and think ‘oh, well, that wifey Caroline is in it, and she’s pretty nice.

“If she can do it, I can do it.”

Article by Adam Gordon, images by Willie Urquhart.