It only takes a spark

Halifax’s first Black female professional firefighter gives back to her community

It’s 2 a.m.

You’ve been asleep for a few hours when a loud tone goes off. Someone yells an address. You have 90 seconds to get out of bed, don 20 kilograms of gear, and jump on the truck. Adrenaline surges. You pilot a 40-tonne firetruck through narrow city streets. The safety of your crew, pedestrians, and other drivers is on you. If there’s a fire, you’ll work harder tonight than most people do in a week. You arrive at the address.

It’s 2:06 a.m.

“Most of our calls are false alarms,” says Assistant Chief Chuck Bezanson of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services (HRFE).

“But how we get there is the exact same alarm for a false alarm or a real fire. You’re constantly dealing with spikes and lulls in your adrenaline level. Just being able to manage that takes a toll on your mental health and Natasha handles that really well.”

Natasha Prest is HRFE’s only Black female professional firefighter. She works out of West Street station, which lets her work in the community where she grew up.

She likes to say she was an only child until she joined the service. Her mother raised her alone (though her father has other children). “It’s like a second family,” she says. “I have brothers now, which is amazing.”

West Street is a 24-hour station. Shifts start and end at 8 a.m. The day starts with check-ins, sharing personal news and coffee in the kitchen. Station officers tell the firefighters what’s on their schedule, training sessions, meetings, and building inspections. There are always trucks to clean and check before the next call.

Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

“We really enjoy cooking at my station,” says Prest. “We try recipes and taste test them among the whole group. You don’t have to have meals as a crew, but we chip in our own money to be able to have family dinners.”

In addition to trying new recipes, mealtimes give the crew a chance to catch up on station news and discuss issues. It’s like a family dinner, with one exception: when the tone sounds, everyone switches to go-mode instantly.

“We enjoy firefighting, so we enjoy fire, but we know that it can come at an expense for somebody else,” says Prest. “Our excitement is really about putting our skills to work. You see a lot of photos of firefighters frowning but it’s not that they’re mad. It’s a mask that goes on. You keep thinking, ‘Don’t smile’ because it could be taken out of context.”

Prest discovered her calling 15 years ago, when a friend who was a firefighter urged her to attend a recruitment session. She laughed him off at first.

“He hounded and harassed me for about a year to just sit in for a session and learn what it’s all about,” says Prest. “It was packed that night with a whole bunch of women. I sat there and said, ‘Oh yeah… I want to do this.’ They made it sound fantastic.”

Prest was a single mother working two jobs to support her daughter. Her mother and her daughter’s father helped, but money was tight.

“I could pay the rent and buy the groceries, but what about the birthday parties or the movies on a Saturday?” says Prest. “I wanted to make sure I could give that to my daughter and not have to work two or three jobs to do it.”

Once she decided on her new path, getting there took five years. She failed the physical test during the female recruitment drive. “I was extremely pissed off because I knew this was my career path, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me.”

If you saw Prest in line at a coffee shop, you wouldn’t assume she’s a firefighter. The 44-year-old stands only 5’4”. She hired a personal trainer to build up her strength and endurance. “That cost me a lot of money, but that was what I needed to do,” she says. “My focus became firefighting.”

The next recruitment would be in three years; firefighting jobs become available through attrition. Over 2,000 candidates applied, which is typical. Of those, the department considers 40–60 for hire, and then only as needed.

“The large part of that group was white males,” Prest remembers. “[Firefighting] is a reality for them. Their uncles, fathers, brothers are in the fire service so for them to be familiar with what it’s all about is easy. It’s not easy for minority groups. It wasn’t when I came on.”

Prest says a prime example is an exercise Sherry Dean, Prest’s friend and fellow female firefighter, did on elementary school visits.

“She would say, ‘Alright children, I want you to close your eyes. Picture a firefighter. What do they look like? What’s their hair colour, eye colour? Do they look like me?’ No, it’s a boy or a man, big and buff, blond and blue-eyed. It’s the Hollywood version of the firefighter.”

That image is slowly changing. HRFE has one of the highest percentages of female firefighters in the country according to the department. Seven per cent of HRFE firefighters are female. By comparison, about 30% of all HRM employees are female, according to the city’s Annual Workforce Report for 2017–18.

Like most firefighters, Prest volunteers in the community. For her, it’s all about mentoring young girls, especially young Black girls.

MEGA road trips are often these young athletes first trip away from home.

MEGA (Maritime Elite Girls Basketball Academy) is a summer basketball league for girls 13 and under. While basketball brings the coaches and players together, the ultimate goal is to develop the whole girl through increased self-esteem and commitment with an emphasis on education and social interaction.

This summer, the MEGA elite team will visit Atlanta, Ga. Prest is excited to see what the girls will think about going to a city where Black people aren’t a minority. “Even for me,” she says. “I haven’t been to Atlanta yet, but I have experienced this once before in New York.”

Prest first got involved when founder Lezlie States invited her to participate in a women’s empowerment evening. The roundtable discussion featured women from various professions talking about their careers. Now she’s an assistant coach.

“Natasha is doing a non-traditional job for women and especially women from our community,” says States. “We try to reach out to kids in all of the African-Nova Scotian communities. With Natasha coming from the inner city and having some struggles, she has the know-how on how to talk to these girls.”

MEGA’s season runs April 1–July 31, when school programs end for the year. Teams practise twice a week and attend outdoor fitness sessions with Prest. Over the season they play four or five tournaments.

During the school year, MEGA athletes submit their report cards to the coaches to verify they’re keeping their grades up. For those who need help, States has relationships with the Black Educators Association and tutors at the North Branch Public Library.

Athletes also journal about what they learn in school and life, their relationships with peers and coaches, and States says “any thoughts you want to get out of your head and on to paper. We realized over the last few years that there are a lot of outside issues in [the girls’] lives. The reality is a lot of girls don’t talk to their parents. We want to be their safe space.”

Prest’s time with MEGA also lets her expose the girls to her other volunteer outlet, Camp Courage. Started in 2006 by firefighter Andréa Speranza, the free, week-long day camp encourages high-school-age girls to consider careers as first responders.

“You’re able to socially, economically raise up your family, your community,” says Prest of a firefighting career. “If I can do this, anybody can. It takes determination, dedication and a lot of hard work. We need to get to these girls young to show them what they can do.”

This month, Prest leaves West Street for a promotion to fire-investigation officer. She’ll investigate what causes major fires and how to prevent them.

“I said to her in the past, I always thought you’d look good in stripes,” says Bezanson, who worked with Prest for the last seven years. Stripes are the insignia of a fire officer. “She sort of chuckled at that, but she is one of those people who will be a leader here. That’s very impressive.”

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