OCOP: Igniting a passion

Mary Foster, from financial analyst to professional firefighter.

It’s not often you hear about someone making the transition from becoming a financial analyst at a successful firm to being out on the front lines of the biggest fires in Maple Ridge.

But it’s exactly where Mary Foster finds herself, and she insists she wouldn’t change a thing along the way.

Foster has worked for seven years with the Maple Ridge Fire Department, spending a majority of her time out of Hall No. 1 on Dewdney Trunk Road.

In her time off is when Foster’s contributions to the community are better recognized. That’s when she’s helping with one of her special initiatives in helping teenage girls spark the idea of becoming a firefighter.

She does it through volunteering her time with Camp Ignite. The regional camp is a four-day retreat with nights spent on top of Burnaby Mountain at the SFU dormitories. The week itself features learning all different type of aspects in firefighting, and even has a day dedicated to performing technical rescues.

At night, Foster is a leader in helping the girls build necessary life skills, whether it be from participating in a self-defence workshop or learning how to conduct a job interview, Foster says there are life lessons for everyone to take out of it, including herself.

She’s taken on a bigger role with Camp Ignite every year, and agreed to come on as a director for the camp last year.

For her, it’s not just about connecting with the girls and showing them how to be capable firefighters down the road, but instead on valuable life lessons and personal development.

“I just get a lot of satisfaction knowing the girls can come through this and get a [firefighting] job or any other type of job,” she says. “Over the course of the four days you see the confidence level increase and you teach them new things and empower them. It’s incredible to see.”

Becoming a firefighter was something that was sparked by meeting one herself when she was working at a brokerage firm. She always considered herself an athlete that enjoy pushing boundaries in life, and what seemed like a distant flame grew into a fiery passion for the career.

“She got right in there and helped me get into it and train with me and help me get ready for it,” she recalls. “I applied and changed careers, just like that. I don’t think I’ve looked back since.

“I’ve always liked physical things. I’ve been a runner for 20- plus years, I’ve been in Ironman four times, so being a firefighter is honestly just an awesome way to keep that up.”

In hindsight, Foster acknowledges that perhaps that’s why a lot of women aren’t entering the trade. She’s the only female career firefighter at the Maple Ridge Fire Department, and that’s part of the problem. She notes departments like Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby are seeing more women entering the job stream, but it’s still part of her drive to educate more girls on the benefits.

She argues there needs to be a face to the job, or women are never going to be tempted into making a positive, life-altering change that she did.

“Even in the course of doing public education events with girls, they are just not thinking about the job because they’re not seeing it,” she said. “Society still tells you, you can’t. It’s a slow process but we work on it.

At her home station, Foster says she still considers fire fighting to be a dream job, and is fortunate to be doing what she does. The constant grind always challenges her to become better every day, even if she’s not always going to be someone to save a house from burning down.

“I’m always doing something, always on my feet and I really enjoy that,” she said. “There’s always things to do, equipment to work on.”

She struggles to recall any watershed moment in which her decision to go into fire fighting is reaffirmed, saying everyday is amazing in one way or another. To do it all in her hometown is icing on the cake.

“It’s an amazing opportunity in an amazing community. We’re all there with the same purpose and that’s community service. It’s incredible to see people coming together for other people. There’s no job that can compare.”