Cape Town firefighter the first female to fill operations position in 174 years

Cape Town firefighter Arlene Wehr has become the first woman to fill a position at operations level in the city's fire service since its establishment in 1845.

Appointed as the operations head for District West in the city from June 1, she will be responsible for the following fire stations: Cape Town (Roeland Street), Sea Point, Salt River, Epping, Brooklyn, Hout Bay, Constantia and Wynberg.

These are key stations which cover the Table Mountain range (which sees its fair share of vegetation fires and even arson) and industrial areas, which has sporadic factory fires. Also falling under her district is the Cape Town train station, which has been crippled by numerous fires where train carriages were either set alight, or struck by electrical faults.

Wehr, originally from Mitchells Plain, joined the Fire and Rescue Service in 1996. According to the City, she gave up her desk job in the private sector to pursue her passion of serving others.

Her relatives, already working in the service, inspired her. "When I joined, I was one of the first females to do so. There were two others before me, and one had left by the time I joined. There were many challenges in what was then a male-dominated environment, but I managed to turn these into opportunities and I steadily worked my way through the ranks," she said.

In an interview with the Tygerburger in 2016, she recalled how being a firefighter mom had been challenging, even while on operational shift during her pregnancies.

Groundbreaking gender equality work

"I used to keep my breast milk in the fridge. It was something new for the men, but they were supportive," she told the newspaper.

In 2004, she became the first female station officer in the service, and in 2014 she was the first female divisional commander.

Her other achievements include receiving a lifetime achiever award from the City for groundbreaking gender equality work, and being appointed to a two-year tenure as the vice-president of the South African Emergency Services Institute.

Wehr said it's been a long road, but she hoped her achievements would inspire other young women to join.

On her responsibilities, she said her district was "well-run", but there were improvements to be made.

"We’ve also got technology which is changing a lot, so where I can improve, I will definitely go out and work with my team to make things better for staff and also to develop the staff to deliver a better service to our community," she said.

The City's Safety and Security mayoral committee member, JP Smith, applauded Wehr for her hard work and hoped it would encourage others.

"It is not an easy job, but it can be fulfilling and Ms Wehr has proven that it can be a rewarding one on so many levels," he said.

"She has written herself into the City’s history books, with humility and determination, unwittingly blazing a trail for others to follow."

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