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Three female firefighters take part in Runher

By Kerry McKittrick

On May 24 hundreds of women will pound the path along the route from Helen's Bay to Crawfordsburn Country Park in the RunHer Coastal 10K.

Among those taking part will be a team of women firefighters from various stations in and around Belfast. Although the event is open to all women over the age of 15 regardless of their athletic ability, the firefighters will be hoping to set a good pace along the course given that all of them are fit because of the physical demands of their job. For other entrants, the course can be walked, jogged, run or all three according to the individual choice.

Every level of fitness is expected and catered for with trained physiotherapists patrolling the route.

We talk to five women taking part in the event, including three of the firefighters, about their jobs and why they are looking forward to the fun run.

Mary Kate McKevitt (28) is a firefighter at the Springfield fire station in west Belfast and lives in Newry. She says:

Being a firefighter was something I wanted to do for a while but things kept getting in the way. I completed my degree in clinical physiology and then I went on to work with a youth outreach programme in Banbridge.

I've always been really into fitness and I'm definitely a runner. I've been a member of Newry Athletics Club since I was 11 and I'm also a qualified personal trainer and fitness instructor.

I also always wanted to do a job that was in public service and firefighting seemed to be the perfect mix between the two. The attraction was that it mixes the physical element and the personal in meeting with people.

I applied and became a firefighter last year. My parents are supportive. Of course, my mum worries because it is a dangerous job but I think my family realise it's the kind of thing I want to do.

This is such a varied job. I think one of the biggest challenges is the transition from doing community work like a home safety visit or speaking to schoolchildren, to being thrown into a very physically demanding and unpredictable situation such as a house fire. But it's very exciting.

I work in a male-dominated environment but that doesn't bother me.

I'm the second youngest in a family of nine and seven of them are brothers, so I'm used to it.

I'm loving the job. I'm still a trainee and will be for the next three years. The training is intense but I know that I'm never going to be left by myself in a situation I can't handle. Everyone else has lots of experience so I can learn from them.

I would like to say running is a hobby but I do a lot of it when I can.

I'm looking forward to RunHer and helping others who are taking part to complete the course."

Lisa Watson (39) is a firefighter at Knock fire station. She lives in Belfast with her husband Paul and their daughter Faye (7). She says:

I joined the fire service 12 years ago after they got rid of the height restriction for women. You used to have to be 5ft 10ins and I'm only 5ft 2ins. The height restriction was introduced initially because firefighters needed to be able to lift ladders off the back of the tenders but now they're mechanical so there is no need to reach up for them. For about 11 years there was only one woman in the fire service but now there are 26 full-time female firefighters and 21 retained – or part-timers.

Previously I worked as a fitness instructor and lifeguard in a leisure centre. I always wanted to do something physical. I've always been a go-getter, too. At school I was into judo, gymnastics, and all sorts of sports.

The only problem is that I'm dyslexic so I find written examinations quite difficult. My parents were supportive when I told them I wanted to apply but my dad was doubtful that I could pass the exam. I started from scratch and went through all the grammar books again and passed the exam. I knew that a physical job like this would suit me perfectly.

The hours of a firefighter are ideal for me, too. We work two days from 9am-6pm, then two nights from 6pm-9am, and then we have four days off. It means I essentially work office hours two days a week and Paul can look after Faye for the other two.

I know that there's a small group of people that think women shouldn't be in the fire service but I've never met them. These days the authorities want more women in the fire service so they're always trying to get more to apply.

I think because we're not as strong as men we have to excel more than men to make our mark. We have a fitness test twice a year that includes a beep test. You need to run from one point to another in between beeps which gradually speed up. Guys who are six feet tall with a much longer stride are going to find it easier than me!

In saying that, though, I'm very close to my crew and we work as a very strong team. We all know each other's strengths and weaknesses so we can work to them.

The best part of this job though is the craic. I have good fun with my crew and we go out into the community to explain our work and give fire safety tips. It's great to get job satisfaction from doing something as simple as putting in smoke alarms in old ladies' houses. I wake up in the morning and I can't wait to get to work.

I train a lot. We have a gym at work and I take aerobics classes at my church. I can't wait for RunHer as we're putting a big team of firefighters together."

Seanin McCann (30) is crew commander at Springfield fire station in west Belfast. She lives in Toomebridge with her husband Michael and they are expecting their first child. She says:

I decided I wanted to become a firefighter when I was at school and I've been one for more than 10 years. I'm now one of three female crew commanders in the fire service.

I became crew commander in 2009. I'm in charge of 14 firefighters and I've never found being a woman an obstacle. You work as a team with your crew and you really need to support and trust each other.

When we get to the incident, I'm the one when we get to an incident that assesses the situation and directs the crew. I'm not the one with the white hat – a station commander – yet. That's the ambition!

My family are really supportive. They've always known what I wanted to do. It's actually other people who give me a hard time about it. It's usually other men who've applied for the service but haven't got in. I just put it down to sour grapes. I was already a firefighter when I met my husband so he didn't get much of a say in it. I've always been into fitness. I played camogie throughout school and won the all-Ireland senior camogie club championship in 2008 with my club Rossa.

These days I tend to run more than anything to stay in shape so I'm looking forward to RunHer.

These days I can't go to incidents because I'm pregnant so I tend to train the crew most of the time. We do a lot of work in the community. I'm an Irish speaker so I go into Irish medium primary schools to talk to the children about fire safety."

Heather Low (51) lives in Belfast and is the counselling service co-ordinator for the family planning service. She says:

Three years ago I weighed 21 and a half stone and in three years I've lost eight of them.

One time I went to Newcastle in Co Down for the day with some friends and I couldn't even make it round the shops because my knees were so sore. I had to sit down half the time. I knew the problems I had with my knees was due to my weight.

From that point I started to make small changes. I cut out all of the fatty food – although I did have a treat of a few glasses of wine on a Saturday night. I also started to swim. At that point there wasn't much else I was capable of doing. I would do 40 lengths three times a week.

From there I started to walk to work which made a big difference. Belfast is quite flat and it's not too big so it was easy enough to do. I didn't do any diets or anything like that.

I've really proud of what I have achieved. Last year I completed the RunHer 5K at Stormont which was a real boost to me. I'm going to walk the Coastal 10K this year and I'm really looking forward to it. They've chosen a really gorgeous route for it."

Dr Samina Dornan (42) is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Royal Maternity Hospital. She lives in Crawfordsburn with her husband, Professor Jim Dornan. She says:

I was born in Pakistan and educated in Islamabad at a school which was run by Irish nuns. I then went to Cork to study. It was my uncle who advised me to come to Ireland. The first thought had been to send me to London but my parents thought it might be too much, whereas Ireland was a gentler place and very family-oriented. From Cork I went to Limerick and then on to Belfast where I trained to be a doctor.

Although I spent some time working at St George's Hospital in London, I made a conscious decision to stay here in Northern Ireland, not least because I had met my husband-to-be, Jim, when I was studying in the Republic. We married in 2001 and we've stayed here because the quality of life is so much better than in somewhere like London.

I chose medicine and obstetrics in particular because I remember when I was growing up female relatives had to go to male obstetricians. Back then it seemed women were being told they didn't know how their bodies worked or what was best for them but men did. I wanted to change that. I'm now a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist with a sub speciality in fetal maternal medicine.

It can be quite a stressful job because the patients I see have been referred due to some kind of problem. I don't often get to give people good news but at least when they leave me they have a solid explanation about what's going on.

I would like to run the course in RunHer but it normally ends up as a kind of a powerwalk instead! I've been challenged to run the 10K though, so I'm hoping to make the time to train for that.

Getting out for a walk is important to me. I get out once or twice a week and it's really my time. I get to relax and clear my head after work and get some endorphins – which can give you quite an euphoric high. I think it's important for NHS staff to get out there and be health conscious as we work on the frontline and see how obesity is becoming a serious problem in the population in general. It's great to take exercise and be healthy. I'm particularly looking forward to doing this for charity but haven't yet decided on which one."

How to take part

Entry costs £18 and you can register online at www.runher.co.uk.

To cater for different abilities there will be a staggered start with groups setting off at different times.

All entrants will receive a RunHer T-shirt, goodie bag and timing chip. Pack collection will take place at Pure Running in Belfast (www.purerunning.co.uk) in the days before the event. Teams of 10 or more will qualify for a luxury goodie bag for the team leader valued at £80.

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