Burlington’s first female fire chief: ‘People really look to the fire service’
Inside Halton

The Burlington Fire Department has a long, proud history filled with notable firsts.

Starting in the 1880s with volunteers and a horse-drawn apparatus, the service has grown and evolved alongside the city into a modern, professional service. The department has added new responsibilities and technologies as it adapted to ever-changing emergency challenges.

One thing the department has never done, is had a female fire chief. That changed in November 2020 as Karen Roche was selected for the position.

Serving as the acting fire chief since May, Roche brings over 24 years of fire service experience to her new role. She’s a former intensive care unit nurse at Toronto General Hospital who worked her way up through the ranks of the Burlington Fire Department, starting out as a volunteer back in the 90s.

“I didn’t know I was going to enjoy it as much as I did. So, back in 1996, I was a volunteer first and at that time, the volunteers here in Burlington were more first response. So, I enjoyed the firefighting. I liked the physicality of the job and it was very invigorating for me, plus I was still able to apply those skills from my nursing — the medical calls and things like that,” said Roche.

“Once it’s in your system. It doesn’t really ever leave.”

Today, the department has 200 full-time staff, 65 volunteers and they cover 189 square kilometres and more than 180,000 residents.

The city has committed to promoting access, equality and diversity, and the fire department has been on the forefront of visibly showing that commitment. Fire trucks have received special wraps for breast cancer awareness and Movember, and Roche is interested in having one for Pride in 2021.

“People really look to the fire service in many respects to be the people that are there when everyone else is having a bad day, and I think when we can show our strength in numbers by promoting diversity and inclusivity. I think that sends a strong message. And Burlington, I think, is at the forefront of that,” said Roche.

Roche is taking on the position of fire chief at an exceptional time in the city’s history. Regular firefighting duties continue, but the COVID-19 pandemic is a dominating issue for emergency services.

“The biggest priority right now is managing the pandemic to the best of our ability,” said Roche, adding there's discussion around the vaccine rollout, which is “an early priority next year. And I really believe once that’s put into place, it will hopefully change things for people and get back to normalcy.”

Regardless of the pandemic, the department continues to deal with traditional fire department problems. Cooking fires are still the highest percentage of fires in the community and the pandemic has actually exacerbated that problem.

“During the onset — when everyone was in lockdown initially back in March, April — there was a rise in fires because people were home. They’re cooking more. There were more fireplace fires — things like that because people were home but they’re still preoccupied,” said Roche.

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