Arlene Wehr has been fighting fires and gender discrimination since 1996 – and now she has become the first female operations manager in Cape Town’s fire and rescue service in more than 170 years.
The position has not been held by a woman since 1845 when the service was first established.
“It’s an achievement for me. I would like this to be an inspiration for women in the service and inspire more women to join,” said Wehr. “It’s a very physical job, some join and subsequently leave.”
Wehr, originally from Mitchells Plain, said that having women incorporated into firefighting efforts was important because women brought expertise and skills to a job that was traditionally male-dominated.
“Having women here is important,” she said. “We are empathetic and work well in teams and we bring a softer touch that is sometimes necessary,” she said.
Wehr, who also became the first female station officer and divisional commander in the service in 2004 and 2014 respectively, is now district head for District West. Crucial fire stations such as Cape Town, Sea Point, Salt River, Epping, Brooklyn, Hout Bay, Constantia and Wynberg fall under her watch.
There are four districts served by the fire department, covering an area of more than 2,560 square kilometres.
The stations in her mandate are critical to maintaining fire safety in an area plagued by hundreds of wildfires and acts of arson.
The Table Mountain National Park falls under her jurisdiction, and she will also be responsible for the sporadic factory fires, acts of arson targeting passenger trains and shack fires in some of the city’s underprivileged areas.
She says that she is ready to tackle any and all of these eventualities.
“We’ve put strategies in place and we’ve made sure that we can continue to serve the community to the best of our ability,” she said.
Mayoral committee member JP Smith welcomed her introduction to the role and said it demonstrated institutional change.
“Her promotion heralds the ongoing gradual change in the fire department, which traditionally has struggled to attract female staff members.”
There are currently 121 women employed by the service, just shy of one in 10 against a male majority.