TORONTO — Like many kids, Adina Kaufman wanted to be a firefighter when she was a youngster.
“My grandfather used to tell me that he remembered me talking about it when I was really little,” Kaufman tells The CJN. “For whatever reason, it spoke to me.”
But instead of acting on her desire, “I waited to outgrow it, because you [didn’t] see a lot of female firefighters. There weren’t a lot of role models.”
The Ottawa-born Kaufman chose an academic path, first earning a bachelor of arts degree, then one in engineering from the University of Waterloo. She realized firefighting was still on her brain when some of her projects related to it, including one in which she studied fire-retardant gear for firefighters.
“I liked the academic side of things,” she recalls, “but I kept being drawn to the world of firefighting. I started to look into it more, and realized that it was an option for women. I decided I wasn’t going to outgrow it and it was time to work toward it.”
But at 5-foot-3, she also knew she had her work cut out when it came to the rigorous training the job requires. “I knew the physical test was going to be the big challenge,” she says.
After applying to Toronto Fire Services, she trained by filling a backpack with 40 kilograms of rocks taken from her parents’ garden and running up and down the stairs of her high-rise apartment building. To strengthen her arms and shoulders, she slung a rope over her balcony and hoisted 20 kilograms of rocks hand over hand.
Despite spraining an ankle a week before, she passed the test, which involved hauling 40 kilograms of fire hose up and down stairs and carrying a 90-kilogram dummy. She was the only woman in her graduating class.
Now, 37, Kaufman joined TFS in 2002. A Firefighter First Class, she’s attached to Station 343 near St. Clair and Oakwood avenues. Kaufman estimated that of Toronto’s 3,000 firefighters, around 100 are women. How many are Jewish women is not the sort of information TFS has.
She concedes hers has not been a conventional route.
“My parents [Gail and Ilia] are used to my not always following a traditional path, so they’re pretty supportive,” Kaufman says. “But they were a bit skeptical. My dad was born in eastern Russia and grew up in Poland. He lived the immigrant experience, so for him, it was confusing.”
A year ago, Kaufman was chosen by Reader’s Digest magazine as one of Canada’s top 15 firefighters. Her extensive volunteer record doubtless played a part in the honour.
She mentors young women in job-skills training through the charitable organization Youth in Motion and spends summers at Camp Bucko (which stands for Burn Camp for Kids in Ontario), where young burn victims enjoy a camp experience.
“It gives them a week in which they just get to be kids and not have to worry about people looking at their scars or asking questions about their injuries.” She’s trained local firefighters and emergency response teams in Cambodia and Nicaragua through Global Medic and has taken part in medical and educational missions to Guyana through Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee.
“Anytime you make a personal connection with someone and you help them to realize their potential, it’s really rewarding,” she says.
Asked about any frightening moments on the job, Kaufman points out that on a typical shift, “you can see multiple fires or zero fires. A great percentage of what we do is actually medical first response.”
One of the biggest fires she fought was on her first day on the job.
“I came to work on the night shift and that night, we had a big fire at a semi-detached house. The other crew members were still struggling to remember my name. But they looked out for me. In your first fire, you’re trying to remember whether you even put your equipment on right.”
On that night, a porch collapsed.
“But I don’t remember feeling scared. I just remember thinking, ‘Get out of the way.’”
Kaufman says she’s been “lucky in that I haven’t had any really scary moments. I’ve had exciting moments, I would say. When it comes down to it, when you go into a fire, your training kicks in. We have a job to do. So you’re feeling more of a drive than a fear.”
The moments that stay with her “are sad moments when you see [victim] families and what they go through.”