New firefighter Melissa O'Keefe suiting up

Carbonear department welcomes first female member in over 20 years

Melissa Jenkins
Published on November 28, 2014
Melissa O'Keefe was sworn in as a member of the Carbonear Volunteer Fire Department last week. She's the first female to join the local fire department for more than 20 years.
Photo by Melissa Jenkins/The Compass

Until two weeks ago, it had been more than two decades since the Carbonear Volunteer Fire Department had a female applicant.

Melissa O'Keefe, a 29-year-old mother of one young son, submitted her application at the last minute, just in time for the department's weekly meeting on Nov. 12. She was hoping to earn one of two positions open with the department.

And she got her wish.

Just after 9 p.m. that same night, O'Keefe received a call from the department confirming her success.

"I'm so excited. I wasn't expecting it at all," O'Keefe told The Compass immediately after she learned about her good news.

As is common practice in most volunteer fire fighting departments, those interested in joining submit applications, then firefighters vote in the new members.

The Compass has learned O'Keefe received quite a bit of support.

O'Keefe doesn't mind that she is the only female on the department, since it's not something she sees as uncommon.

Sonia Williams, the former fire chief of the Harbour Grace fire department and a 20-year member, is O'Keefe's aunt.

"I've never said, 'Oh my God, she's a firefighter and she's a girl," O'Keefe explained. "For me, it's a little bit cool, but not a big deal."

O'Keefe is the second female the department has recruited since its incorporation in 1841. More than two decades ago, Tina Short was the first.

"I'm a little disappointed that there have only been two females," said O'Keefe.

When asked if she was nervous about applying, she laughed.

"I was freaking out a bit. I had an application filled out, but I wasn't sure if I was going to hand it in. It got crumpled up, but I got another one."

She genuinely thought she wouldn't get accepted, so she prepared for "rejection."

"On the last day to apply, I was afraid to ask anyone to sign for me," she explained. "But then I decided if I didn't get in, I would apply again, and again."

Even with the fear of rejection, O'Keefe decided to go for it.

"A few years ago, when I first thought of joining, I just couldn't commit the time," she said, referring to her newfound motherhood.

Her son, Ehtan, now goes to school during the day, and she has a strong family support system around her at all times.

"Now I think I can commit to it, and not sacrifice other life experiences," she said.

Ethan, however, wasn't too impressed when he found out mom was going to be a firefighter.

"He was not too pleased," O'Keefe said. "He sees how it is on TV and in the movies. He thinks it's really dangerous. And it is."

But Ethan has since accepted his mom's new volunteer position, but not without a little push.

"I told him about the children's Christmas party and that he gets to meet Santa," O'Keefe laughed.

She has received her uniform and pager, and is looks forward to starting her training.

The other firefighter sworn in last week was 30-year-old Ryan Wheadon.

O'Keefe is no longer nervous about joining the department, but she knows there is a lot of hard work ahead.

"I just hope I can meet the standards," O'Keefe said.

Facts about Carbonear's newest female firefighter:

° Name - Melissa Michelle O'Keefe;

° Birthdate - July 16, 1985;

° Hometown - Carbonear;

° Favourite Colour - Red;

° High school - Graduated Carbonear Collegiate in 2003;

° Interesting facts about Melissa - She takes her coffee triple-triple; she has one son named Ethan; she has always wanted to be a firefighter; she has a pet bearded dragon (lizard).