Firefighter blazes new historic trail

Firefighter Arlene Wehr has made history.

Former Westridge resident Arlene Wehr has been appointed head of operations at the District West office, becoming the first woman to fill a position at this level since the fire and rescue service was established in 1845.

Ms Wehr, 50, from Blackheath, who took up her new position on June 1, joined the City of Cape Town’s fire and rescue service in 1996, giving up a desk job in the private sector to pursue her passion to serve the community.

In her new role, she is responsible for eight of the City’s fire stations that fall within Area West, namely: Cape Town (Roeland Street), Sea Point, Salt River, Epping, Brooklyn, Hout Bay, Constantia and Wynberg.

“Being in this position is a great achievement for me, I have progressed through the ranks from being a firefighter to being the head of a district with eight fire stations and this includes managing the city district. It is a huge responsibility and I know that with all my experience, skills and knowledge gained throughout my journey, I will apply myself, learning more in this role to make a success of it,” she said.

Ms Wehr said it is a huge achievement, “breaking the glass ceiling for women in the service”.

“I hope to inspire other women in the service to continue to work hard and move up in the ranks as I did,” she said.

Before joining the fire services however, Ms Wehr was an assistant accountant.

“I felt that I needed to do something more, for me and my community,” she said. “The fire services came to my community, I saw how they worked and took that information with me.”

Ms Wehr started with the fire services in 1996 as a firefighter in Roeland Street in the city centre, her current workplace.

She trained for three months and was sent to various stations thereafter. Ms Wehr was also the incident commander at various major fires as well as managing a district for fire safety in Blaauwberg, which dealt with compliance and fire plans. She said she is looking forward to the challenge of her promotion.

Ms Wehr said while firefighting started off being male dominated, the fire and rescue services have made many changes to accommodate women.

“I am a hard worker, and will use all I can to make my job better. We’re a team, we work together.”

Her brother, Brandon Stuurman, from Westridge, a former senior firefighter for the City and former compliance co-ordinator at Airports Company South Africa, has been her inspiration. “He was in the fire services and I saw his passion for the job. This inspired me to become a firefighter as this was what I wanted to do, for me and my community,” Ms Wehr said.

Ms Wehr has received a Lifetime Achiever Award from the City in 2016 for groundbreaking gender equality work, she was appointed to a two-year tenure as the vice president of the South African Emergency Services Institute in 2019 and planned and led City delegations to numerous World Firefighter Games competitions and World Rescue Challenges.

“It’s a well-run district, but there are improvements to be made; we’ve also got technology which is changing a lot, so where I can improve, I will definitely go out and work with my team to make things better for staff and also to develop the staff to deliver a better service to our community,” said Ms Wehr.

“Arlene Wehr should be applauded for her hard work and the success that has come from it,” said JP Smith, the City’s mayoral committee member for safety and security.

“I hope it will encourage many more women to consider the fire and rescue service as a career. It is not an easy job, but Ms Wehr has proven that it can be a rewarding one on so many levels.”