Ja Fire Brigade officer blazing a trail of her own
For 23 years, Terri Ann Leslie has been cooling tempers, extinguishing blazes, and extricating people from crashed vehicles in the western parish of St James.
The assistant superintendent is one of two females in the Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB) who is this year being conferred with the medal of honour for meritorious service, alongside 16 male colleagues.
The honour is awarded to officers and other members of the uniformed services who have performed distinguished service or have displayed distinguished conduct or bravery.
Leslie told The Gleaner that initially, she had no desire to become a firefighter.
Instead, she had a passion for helping people and had her sights set on becoming a nurse.
But when the JFB launched the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in 1996, it grabbed her attention.
Operations began in the western towns of Savanna-la-Mar and Negril in Westmoreland; Ironshore in St James; and Lucea, Hanover.
The then 20-something-year-old completed firefighting training prior to becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT).
“That was a paramilitary training that takes on a lot of physical activity, but the EMT training was more theoretical and practical,” she said, adding that it also required focus and the ability to retain a wealth of knowledge.
“I’ve never gone in the EMT department to work because of the love I developed for suppression, which is the firefighting aspect. Also, after conducting some background research about the scope for mobility in that department, it would have been very [slow] in terms of rising to officer level,” the 43-year-old shared.
Leslie has not only battled flames, but blazed a history-making trail, becoming the first female in St James to be promoted to the ranks of subofficer and officer, gaining the first after four years of service and the latter six years later.
Leslie became an assistant superintendent in 2019 and is currently assigned to the JFB headquarters as acting research and development officer.
Though she cannot recall the first emergency she responded to, etched in her memory are a few recollections of sorrow and jubilation experienced on scenes over more than two decades.
She recalled seeing “just charred remains that were left of the elderly person because of the type of dwelling construction and the distance from the fire station to the scene” on one occasion.
She also recounted that the station received a call about a motor vehicle accident where persons were trapped and seeing three fatalities on arrival at the scene.
“It is still vivid in my mind because it was during the Christmas season, which is about happiness and being with loved ones,” she said.
Leslie continued: “We know that we can be faced with death any time, but it is a better feeling when we know that we have saved a life.”
Expressions of gratitude flowed at a tenement yard in Mount Salem, Montego Bay, as the brigade responded to a call that a single dwelling was on fire.
“I remember the division had responded with their main pumper to another incident when this call was received, and I was the officer in charge of that small unit, which had to respond until we got assistance from other units,” she said.
With the help of a water tender, the team managed to surround the fire and prevented it from spreading to the other homes in the yard.
“The risk was great, given the close proximity to other houses. The people were delighted, and I even did a television interview. It was a positive story in media that day,” she recalled.
About the honour she will receive, Leslie said: “I am elated. After 23 years, there has been some amount of achievement, and so to get the medal of honour for meritorious service is just an added accomplishment.
“The fact that this is a male-dominated organisation, it shows that there isn’t anything that we are short of.”
The Government will use a virtual format for the 2020 Ceremony of Investiture and Presentation of National Honours and Awards owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be broadcast on television and on social media on National Heroes Day, October 19, starting at 8:30 a.m.