Arlene Wehr may be the first woman appointed as a district commander in the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services, but she has no plans to stop there.
Being the first woman to achieve the rank is nothing new to Wehr. She was one of the first women to join the service in 1996, and counts her steps up the ranks as some of the highlights of her career.
“I was the first woman to be appointed in many cases,” she says.
Those first few years were very challenging, with many of Wehr’s male colleagues resentful of opening their ranks to women after over 100 years.
“It was very challenging. We were told we’re not as strong and didn’t belong here. There were many derogatory things said. We had to work double hard to prove ourselves,” she recalls.
But these challenges did not prevent Wehr from rising up the ranks. “It’s hard work. There are studies and processes need to advance. But I feel very proud. I’m on the road to achieving my end goal.”
Wehr chose to enter the service to serve the community. “My passion is to assist people to safety. The job is different every day and there are lots of challenges. There are also lots of adrenaline rushes!”
Wehr has attended many mountain fires, which taught her an invaluable lesson: “We work as a team. You can only extinguish big fires as a team, not alone.”
One of her first calls saw her attending a harrowing building fire on Main Road in Woodstock, where people were jumping from the third storey. She vividly remembers attending a scene where a helicopter had crashed into a building in the CBD.
Beyond her role as a firefighter, Wehr is also a mother of three. Her son was born before she joined the service, and she says she is fortunate to have a strong support system to help her care for her family.
“You work over weekends and holidays. Luckily I have a very supportive family. You don’t get a crèche that looks after children during the night shift!”
During her two pregnancies, Wehr went onto the operational shift in line with the service’s policies to ensure her unborn children were not exposed to any hazards.
But even that brought with it challenges.
“I used to keep my breast milk in the fridge. It was something new for the men, but they were supportive,” she says.
The future for women in the service looks bright, says Wehr.
“Women are progressing through the ranks. We’ve come a long way. One day soon women will lead the service.
“That’s the ultimate goal.”