Latika Thomas: Life in boots and bunker gear


Monday, January 21, 2019

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LATIKA Thomas joined the Jamaica Fire Brigade in 2005, but she didn't plan to stay there long, let alone still be there today, climbing not only truck ladders, but the rungs of the brigade.

She had graduated from Dinthill Technical High School in 2002 and didn't have the funds to pursue higher education just yet. Growing restless from being at home and working in her family's small grocery shop, her brother prompted her to respond to an ad in the papers for new recruits to join the brigade.

“The plan, going into training school, was just to do the training, get on my feet, and then move on,” she confessed to All Woman last week. She wanted to become a teacher at the time, and planned to use her salary from the brigade to put herself through teachers' college.

After a successful training period, Thomas was thrust into in the line of duty as a firefighter based at the Waterford, Portmore station. She remembered responding to her first call.

“The call came in around lunch time. It was an accident that involved a motor vehicle, and there was a young man whose leg was severed from his body and flung into a gully. Some of my co-workers had brought their lunches, so while waiting for the police they were just standing around and eating, but I was sick to my stomach. I could not eat meat for about three months after that.”

Her second call was not as gruesome, but it was not much better.

“We went to cut off a padlock at a house, as neighbours were trying to call the person for days and she wasn't responding. The person had died in bed. I remember looking at the body and realising that I slept in that same position. I wasn't affected as badly as I was on the first call, but when I got home and lay down, I couldn't stay in the position. I haven't slept like that since.”

But somewhere along the line, Thomas grew to love her job. After about two years she scrapped her plans to leave the brigade.

“I didn't see anywhere else that I'd rather be,” she said. “I think that this job was made for me. I would choose the boots and bunker gear over heels and business suits any day.”

After several years of being a firefighter, however, Thomas felt it was imperative that she further her education. She obtained an associate degree in computer applications in 2010, immediately after which she went on to pursue a bachelor's degree in business, majoring in human resource management. Not one to give up on her first love, teaching, she also studied for a postgraduate diploma in education and training. This was just the boost she needed to begin her climb up the ladder within the brigade.

“I moved up to lance corporal in 2013, and then in 2016 I moved up to the rank of corporal,” she beamed. “The organisation then sent me to The University of the West Indies in 2017, where I was trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT).”

As an EMT, Thomas now responds to calls mainly with the ambulance, but she still frequents the fire unit, riding on the truck as she has been doing since she started in 2005.

She also serves as the manager for the Waterford Fire Station Resource and Outreach Centre, an initiative that the station launched in 2013 that provides homework assistance and extra lessons to primary school students, and assistance with research to other community members.

The fire brigade is still a male-dominated organisation, and Thomas is aware that there are still some gender biases, but she says it is not very prevalent.

“As a woman coming into the brigade, you have to be willing to work, I'd say, twice as hard as the men. There are also skills that you learn to use to get tasks done. Maybe the men would do something one way, but you would need to position your body another way to get the same results,” she said.

“In terms of gender bias, it is very minimal, but what I know is that if you carry out the given task, then you are given the same amount of respect. And mind you, if there is a man who is operating below the level that is expected, the same treatment would be given to that man as would be given to a woman who is operating below standard,” she added.

She believes that respect is a principle to live by, regardless of gender or status.

“The same respect that I would give to the commissioner is the same respect that I would give to the janitor,” she said frankly. “I believe that if I want someone to treat me a certain way, then that is how I should treat them.”

When she is not on duty, Thomas likes to catch up on sleep, which she confessed is her favourite pasttime.

“I also spend some time volunteering,” said Thomas, who serves as a facilitator of restorative justice with the Ministry of Justice. “I also like to work with children, for example, our December project at the station was to work with Strathmore Gardens Children's Home, and we have decided to take on a more integral role with that home.”

Her role models are two firefighters, one of whom is Julian Davis-Buckle, chief fire prevention officer of the brigade.

“She is a true replica of determination. Also Kevin Samuels, he is one of my supervisors. He is very encouraging. Even when I don't see a way out he encourages me to persevere.”

Thomas describes her brother, Byron Burke, as one of her backbones. She enjoys the company of her family, especially her nieces and nephews, but she is not planning to have any children of her own just yet.

“The timing is just not right,” she laughed. “What I like to do most of the time is just plan out my year.”

While children are not a part of her plans for this year, Thomas has made several resolutions for her department.

“I want to ensure that for the resource centre, we are more connected with the community,” she said. “We also see how much more we can assist people, such as fire victims, and those who have lost loved ones to fires. Instead of just wrapping up (putting out a fire) and leaving, my team and I are trying to come up with ways that we can further assist them.”

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