Little Britain woman blazing a trail for young female firefighters

Kristy-Lynn at age 8 in her dad's uniform

KAWARTHA LAKES-22 year old Kristy-Lynn Pankhurst practically grew up in a fire hall. Ever since she was a little girl she has been hanging out with her dad Mark Pankhurst, Current Fire Chief for the City of Kawartha Lakes. She was just 8 years old when her dad took over the helm of the Rama Fire Department and she got to sit at his desk and wear his uniform.

While she loved spending time with her dad, Pankhurst initially wanted to follow in her mom’s footsteps. “Ever since I was little I wanted to be a teacher and I think that was because I went to DR George Hall public school in Little Britain and because it’s a small town community you really got to know your teachers,” Pankhurst told Kawartha 411. “They really supported you in whatever you wanted to do, so I think I had some really cool teachers there who really wanted to teach, and my mom was an Educational Assistant, so I really wanted to be a teacher.”

All that changed after a co-op placement in high school. “In grade 11 I was able to do a co-op in Fire Prevention and I met some really cool people in Lindsay and they took me under their wing,” explains Pankhurst.  “I did some inspections and I did some different presentations and fire drills and they really taught me a lot and that’s when I really fell in love with it. I saw that in a way I could still be teaching just not in a classroom setting, in a different setting.”

After that fateful co-op, Pankhurst went to Carleton University in Ottawa to study Communications, thinking she could combine her love of educating the public with her love or all things fire services. “I kept a minor in Geography in case a still wanted to be a teacher but when I got there I started taking these classes and realized what I was taking in communications was directly applicable to what I love and the idea of Fire Prevention and teaching people fire safety and educating the public about preventing fires.”

She says she met one of her biggest supporters and mentors when she did a co-op placement at the Ottawa Fire Services. “I had a really great Deputy Chief there, his name is Sean Tracey and he took me under his wing and he let me right into the Ottawa Fire Services. The first day they had a meeting and asked me ok, what do you want to have on your resume when you leave here.”

Deputy Fire chief Tracey says Pankhurst was a natural. “Kristy-Lynn showed outstanding initiative in creating a role for herself here in Ottawa. While attending her university classes she offered her services to help in our public education efforts. It was a chance to apply what she was learning in her courses to build some of our educational programs. She was driven and extremely motivated to learn and to expand on her work experience.”    Although he jokes Pankhurst wasnt good at everything. “Ask Kristy-Lynn sometime about the 12 days of Christmas video campaign we undertook with her assistance. Kristy-Lynn was responsible for the coordination and set up of some of these “shoots”, Tracey recalls. “Needless to say we have no budding actors here with the Ottawa Fire Services despite Kristy-Lynn’s better coaching. We are glad to have steered her away from a career in directing movies to fire prevention.”

While at the Ottawa Fire Services she got to start a blog. “I started this blog and I interviewed a girl about a camp they called Camp FFIT (Female Firefighters in Training) and was like wow I’ve got to go to this.”

Her grandfather become ill that spring so Pankhurst left Ottawa to move closer to home but she went back a few months later to attend camp FITT. Camp FFIT is for young girls between the ages of 15-19. “The purpose of the camp is to inspire young girls and let them know they can get into this profession and really not even just firefighting but young girls can do anything they want.” They take approximately 20 girls per session and teach them all about the world of firefighting. “At the beginning of the week they ask how many girls are interested in being a firefighter and usually a few raise their hand. On the last day they ask again and everybody raises their hand.” Including Pankhurst, who says that solidified her love of the fire services.

When she came back home, Pankhurst enrolled at Univeristy of Ontario, Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Durham to continue her Communications Degree and became a volunteer firefighter in Little Britain. “My dad had been a volunteer firefighter in Little Britain before he got into administration, I would never had imagined I would have my own gear hanging on the wall there too.That was really cool.” she says. All the while Pankhurst was taking courses at the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst as well.

It was at UOIT that she met another great mentor. “At UOIT I teamed up with a really amazing professor, she’s an expert on social media and she’s done some really successful leadership over the years. I took my knowledge from the fire services and together we looked at how fire services are using twitter.”

The study called “The Safe Tweet” looks at how fire services across the province use Twitter  to get their message out.  “We selected a few twitter accounts and we found that moving forward, right now fire services generally tweet safely, they don’t want to make fire safety too much fun because its such a serious topic but we took our research and found a way to suggest what they could do moving forward to gain the most attention for public education initiatives.” Her research paper is in the first phase of being published.

Pankhurst finishes her degree on December 4th and starts a new job on December 5th. She’s looking forward to her new position in Public Education and Fire Prevention Inspection with the Ajax Fire Department. As fate would have it, that’s where her dad started his career as well.

Pankhurst says times are changing and she’s excited to be part of it. “For years there was this longstanding joke in the fire services that says that years of tradition are unimpeded by progress but I think that is really changing and today they don’t just fight fires reactively.” Pankhurst explains. “Public Education is the first line of defence against fire. Together the fire service is working to educate the public and mitigate the risk in every community and that’s what I’m excited to be part of.”

In the past women made up less than 5 per cent of a firefighting class.  Since 2013, the number is closer to 15-20 per cent. Pankhurst has a message other girls considering a career in firefighting. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask questions. Sometimes you will be the only girl but I think it’s the same in every position, any job you get you could run into problems with a co-worker. Theres such a big team environment in the Fire Services.”

She’s thankful to all those who have helped her along the way. “I think its so cool and I have a lot of people to send “thank-you” cards to.”