As women’s month draws to a close, Northern News caught up with the feisty Kim van Zyl who is platoon commander of Durbanville Fire Station.
She joined the City’s Fire and Rescue Service in 2005, first based at Central Fire Station in Roeland Street Cape Town, and from there moving through the ranks as a driver, a medic and senior firefighter at fire stations at Lakeside, Epping and Ottery.
In 2012, while based at Roeland Street, she became the first woman to do a season of vegetation firefighting. It’s a contract position where physical fitness is important, says Kim.
In 2015 she was promoted to platoon commander of Durbanville Fire Station, responsible for the property, equipment and the shift crew of seven (only one of whom is a woman).
Kim grew up in Beacon Valley, Mitchell’s Plain, dreaming of becoming a doctor. But when that dream didn’t materialise, she changed course, and applied to the City’s Metro police department. In 2001 she became the first woman in the second intake of the department, but she soon realised it was a dangerous job and that it didn’t give her the opportunity she wanted to “help all birds with broken wings”.
Reflecting on what it takes to do what she does, Kim says you need to be passionate about being a firefighter. Crews are called to all types of emergencies, from overturned trucks to shack fires or a cat stuck up a tree.
They wear heavy flame-retardant uniforms, gloves and helmets with visors. With Covid-19 they’ve added masks to the mix.
She says lockdown has been a time to take stock, to reflect and review how they do things. In the workplace, she says, she initially saw fear. No one knew what to expect and there was a shortage of personal protective equipment. But it also gave her the opportunity to get to know her staff, she says, change their daily routine from drills to theoretical training and do maintenance at the station.
She works 24-hour shifts and hubby Brent, until lockdown, was a pilot with SA Express which is undergoing liquidation. Now he is a “home executive”, who among other things, takes care of their four-year-old son, Blake.
On her bright pink cellphone, Kim plays videos of the little boy playing in the garden. “We live in a jungle,” she jokes of their Brackenfell home’s large garden. Her eyes sparkle as she describes how Blake “helps” by cutting off the heads of her seedlings.
Covid-19 and lockdown have meant change in the family’s routine and Kim says she and Brent have decided to keep Blake home from playschool this year to allow him to “run wild in the jungle”. Brent, who she says was not previously a handyman, has tried his hand at plumbing as she closed her eyes and let him get on with it. He also turned packing crates into planters for her seedlings.
As for being a firefighter, it’s all about serving the community and helping as many birds with broken wings as possible, she smiles.