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On the back wall of fire station 102 in Mississauga is a corkboard with a pin-up of a bewitching brunette with plump lips in a tight, black sheath with a plunging neckline.

"Pretend you didn't see that!" one of the firefighters calls out through a husky burst of laughter, in an attempt to erase a well-worn stereotype.

The call came from Shelli Varela, whose 14 years with the Mississauga Fire Service seems to have done that already.

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Ms. Varela was the "only girl among 500 boys" when she joined the service in 1994. Fourteen years later, she's about to become a fire captain and in the company of a dozen other female firefighters, but never had her sights set on being a trailblazer.

She didn't think for a second that being a woman would be an issue when she entered the service, and it wasn't.

When a flood of complaints about harassment by male firefighters of their female counterparts flowed out of Richmond, B.C., in 2006, Ms. Varela was bewildered.

The accounts of feces placed in boots, obscenities scratched on lockers and porn constantly playing on fire station TVs seemed completely foreign to her.

If anything, her male counterparts have gone too far with the political correctness.

When they encountered her for the first time, they were suspicious of how a slight woman of 5 feet 2 inches could have passed the same tests to meet the gruelling demands of putting out fires.

But after seeing their 120-pound fellow firefighter strap on a 100-pound "high riser" - two bundles of hose, an axe and an air pack - the questions about whether she wanted to wear a skirt as part of her uniform or sleep in a room separate from the other firefighters were extinguished.

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She said she didn't want special treatment, but quite the opposite - to earn the respect of her colleagues.

"I wanted to shovel all the snow, I wanted to do all the dishes, I wanted to do all the crappy jobs, I wanted to earn my spot," she said.

She also impressed her team by showing that being a petite woman in the service had its advantages.

She could crawl into attics or rolled-over vehicles to secure patients when the same task was impossible for a brawny colleague, and even in her bulky uniform, had a knack for soothing victims at emergency scenes.

Aside from the real demands of work, she also refused to let calendars remain men-only terrain.

In 2003, she created one for female firefighters and has since modelled a few times herself: wielding an axe with firefighter pants on the bottom and a red bra on top. Suddenly, she became the pin-up on the corkboard.

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But even after this foray, respect from the guys at work was still intact.

When the opportunity came to write a test to qualify as a fire captain - the leader of her shift - she prepped for six months and ranked 14th out of 100 firefighters. A year and a half later, when a captain retired from Station 116, the fire service slotted her in. She takes up her new appointment on July 7.

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More


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