Meet Ronaye Beck, the Central Okanagan's first female fire chief | Kelowna News | iNFOnews

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Meet Ronaye Beck, the Central Okanagan's first female fire chief

Wilson’s Landing Fire Chief Ronaye Beck is pictured in this undated photo.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Regional District Central Okanagan
July 30, 2019 - 6:30 AM

KELOWNA - For Ronaye Beck, becoming the first female fire chief in the Central Okanagan isn’t so much about breaking new ground but just continuing on with her history of taking on non-traditional roles.

Beck was appointed fire chief of the Wilson’s Landing Fire Protection District last week.

“As firefighters, when we put on our turnout gear and helmet, we’re all the same,” Beck told iNFOnews.ca. “We don’t know who’s who. It’s just a name on the back. We’re all the same. Why should we be treated any differently?”

It was a short rise to the top of the 23-person “paid on-call” department that covers 16 km along Westside Road from Trader’s Cove to Shelter Bay. As far as she knows, she’s the only female fire chief in the region, although Kaleden did have a woman chief who is now retired.

Born in Kelowna and brought up in Red Deer, Beck visited the area often so it seemed like the ideal place to retire when she left the oil industry four years ago.

“I ended up retiring at quite a young age and I didn’t really know what I was going to do with myself,” she said. “My neighbour was a volunteer at our local fire department and kind of convinced me there’s a job for everyone. I could do traffic control or something like that.”

Ronaye Beck, far left, is the first female fire chief in the Central Okanagan.
Ronaye Beck, far left, is the first female fire chief in the Central Okanagan.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Wilson’s Landing Fire Protection District

But, given her background, traffic control would not have held her interest for long.

“I thought that was something I could do. That was week one and we moved on from there,” she laughed. “The next thing you know, I was fully trained up as exterior and interior firefighter. Then, because of my training background, of course, and my passion for safety and training I got involved as an instructor.”

Within two years she was deputy chief then took over as acting chief when Don Bennison retired on July 1.

Her background started as one of the few female chemical engineers working in the petrochemical industry.

She worked in Kitimat where, she said, there weren’t many chemical engineers so she quickly moved into a more senior role, focused on risk management and was soon traveling to all her company’s sites around the world as a global loss prevention manager, developing engineering standards to prevent losses.

She then took on a six-month consulting role with an oil and gas company in Oman to help train their operators for a new oil project.

After that, she was hired as the CEO in a project to build the first trades training facility in Oman. That included building a fully functional drilling rig to train operators, a welding school that became the world’s largest, high voltage electrical training along with health and safety.

After four years in Oman, she decided it was time to retire and move to the Westside.

Oman is a Muslim country but not as conservative as others in the region, like Saudi Arabia, so women are allowed to work with only a few restrictions. Still, it was unusual for a woman to be a CEO – and the only woman in the operation. There were a dozen women working there when she left and they trained the first woman rig technician.

Throughout her career, Beck was never ill-treated or harassed on the job for being a woman, although she did run into some bias in Oman outside the workplace. That helped give her a thick skin and she’s had no issues in the traditionally male-dominated firefighting world.

Within a year of joining the Wilson’s Landing department, she helped the rest of the crew – male and female - as a forest fire roared towards Traders Cove. Their job was to evacuate the area but were forced to retreat themselves before the wind shifted and they were able to return to put out burning sheds and hedges, managing to save all the homes.

Beck was instrumental in getting her fire department trained to do medical emergency responses, the last in the Central Okanagan to take on that role.

It didn't take long for her to show her leadership abilities.

“When I first became deputy chief, the chief went away and left me as duty officer,” Beck said. “We had a vehicle fire at 3 o’clock in the morning. So that was my very first command. It’s one of those careers where you can say, ‘you put your feet to the fire and learn by fire.’”

On May 1, she was co-leader as her crews battled their first house fire in a dozen years, also at Traders Cove.

“It was the real thing, that’s for sure,” Beck said. “It’s what we’d been training to do all this time. Training on Monday nights and the live-fire we do at the burning building in Vernon is one thing. The real thing is another, but the team did fantastically. All that training paid off.”

As fire chief, Beck is still a paid on-call firefighter, although she puts in more hours doing administrative tasks than before. She’s also often the first to take a call when an emergency happens.

The challenge too, is that many of her crew work in Kelowna so they’re not available during the day. That’s when she has to rely on retirees to suit up.

But she downplays her role as the leader.

“Somebody has to do it,” she laughed. “No really, it’s a fantastic team. Somebody has to lead them but it’s all about teamwork in the fire service. We count on each other for our life safety and so it’s quite a camaraderie amongst the team. There’s a lot of spirit and a lot of pride.”

Does she plan to take this new career further?

“I am retired,” she said. “I enjoy golfing and yard work and all those fun things. But, at the same time, you have to have something to give you a reason to get up in the morning. I wasn’t thinking that firefighting was going to be what that new purpose in my life was going to be but, it’s such a feel-good position. You’re giving back to the community, You’re helping people. There’s instant gratification out of that. I never realized I was going to enjoy it until I got involved.”


To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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