WINDSOR, N.S. — When Frances Oliver watched firefighters trudging through snow to battle a blaze at her Falmouth home, she felt compelled to one day return the favour and help someone else.
It didn’t take her long to do just that.
Now, with 16 years of volunteer firefighting under her belt, she has retired from active duty and joined the Windsor Fire Department’s Veterans Association.
Her decision to join the veterans association marks a first for the organization, which formed in 1988 — the same year women began joining the fire department.
“Since January 1881, when this department came into existence, we have not had a female veteran firefighter until now,” said Bob DeMont, the president of the association. There are currently 25 active veteran firefighters and 40 in total.
Kim Smith was the first woman to don the WFD uniform, but didn’t go on to join the veterans association. To be eligible to join the veterans association, a firefighter must first volunteer for at least 16 years. One other woman with the WFD, Bev Payzant, has surpassed that milestone but she has not yet retired.
“It is nice to be the first one in but it could’ve been someone else just as easily as it was me,” said Oliver, pointing out Payzant’s contribution to the fire service.
Oliver is quick to shine the spotlight away from her, focusing instead on the strong men and women who have helped build the department up.
As for the importance of being the first woman to join the veterans association, she appreciated the gesture but felt it didn’t warrant special treatment.
“In an era where you want to be treated as an equal, it’s also a little weird that it’s something that gets singled out,” she said, noting that she’s always felt like a part of the group.
Where it all began
DeMont officially welcomed Oliver into the veterans association on Nov. 28, presenting her with her retired helmet, a t-shirt and a cake.
“Some of you may not know the history of Frances joining this organization. Probably the catalyst that got her here happened on a cold March night in 2001 when we got paged out to a house fire,” said DeMont.
“She and Greg were having their house remodelled and tragedy struck. I remember personally going up through a field with snow up to my butt. It was a cold night. We persevered and we did our best,” DeMont continued.
“Frances and Greg realized the sacrifice that was done by many departments around the area and Frances wanted to give back — and she has given back and she will continue to give back. We appreciate all that she’s done for Windsor Fire.”
Oliver said she was looking for somewhere to volunteer when the fire destroyed their Falmouth home.
“When we first moved to Nova Scotia, my husband and I were both working from home and we both had desk jobs,” recalled Oliver, noting they were sitting all day and then lounging all night. “I just needed to get something so that I was out and doing something physically active as a volunteer. And then fate just sort of intervened when our house burned down.”
Oliver approached the late fire chief Fred Fox to see if there was an opportunity.
Although petite in stature, she was welcomed and officially joined the Windsor Fire Department on Oct. 28, 2001. She retired on June 3, 2018.
Deputy fire chief Jamie Juteau described Oliver as a very committed firefighter who was always willing to lend a hand or get involved in club activities.
“She was very dedicated to the department, fire prevention and trying to learn the trade,” said Juteau in a phone interview, noting she was one of the department’s first members to participate in a FireFit challenge.
“She always held us to account. If we had a training event where she thought something went extremely well, she would email the instructors the next day and say so. If she felt that maybe something was lacking somewhere, she would be the first to say so as well. She was never scared to speak her mind but at the same time, she was a very dedicated member of our department,” said Juteau. “I’m glad to see that she moved over to the veterans and that she’s still part of the family.”
Looking back on her years with the department, Oliver said she would recommend the fire service to anyone who has an interest.
“I would encourage anybody who has any kind of interest in helping out in the community to look into the fire departments because they do such a wide range of things,” she said, noting how she always enjoyed volunteering at Windsor’s annual pumpkin regatta.
“We have people here that were afraid of heights so they didn’t do the ladder work. I have no problems with heights. There’s always a mix of people with different skills. There’s always something that you’re going to be able to do,” she said.
Over her years as a firefighter, Oliver had many memorable experiences, but one that she said she’ll never forget is the Edgehill Estates fire.
“It was the first time I was able to go in and rescue a cat,” said Oliver, with a smile and glistening eyes. “Coming out with the cat and having the owners that are just so happy when they got their animal back, it was a nice feeling... where somebody is really, truly appreciative of what you’ve done.”
Now that she’s a member of the veterans association, Oliver will be helping at various fundraisers and working to support the active members.
“The veterans association is actually very active and it’s very much growing,” said Oliver, noting she’s already been tapped to help at a New Year’s Eve function.
She says the fire department has always been welcoming and helpful — a second family that she’s grateful for.
“They've always been very welcoming to me... I’m very, very appreciative of that,” said Oliver. “And the mix of people and the network of people that you meet through an organization like this is phenomenal. It was a really great boon to us because we were relatively new to the community.”