If it weren’t for her son, Lisa Axelson never would have become a firefighter.
And it’s thanks to him and other supporters that led Axelson to earn the 2020 Public Educator of the Year award by the Fire Prevention Officers’ Association of B.C.
It was back in 2001 when Alex Reich, then 12 years old, went to the Chilliwack Fire Department (CFD) for a tour with his mom. He had zero desire to go.
Alex had been to the firehall countless times from previous scouting journeys, but the last thing he needed to do to earn his Queen’s Scout Award (the highest award achievable in Scouts) was to visit a firehall.
“Take me to the firehall and you give me a tour of the firehall,” Axelson recalled saying to him.
So he did. There she was, an adult asking all the questions to Capt. Martin Traas and Lt. Craig Philbrook.
“It fascinated me.”
At the end of the tour, they told her they were accepting applications for paid on-call (POC) firefighters and suggested she apply.
“I said ‘women can’t be firefighters.’”
As an advocate for women in the force for years, those words may come as a surprise to folks who know her. But she said them because she knew from her experience as a fitness instructor that, physiologically speaking, women are not as strong as men from the waist up, she said.
Her comment led to a 90-minute conversation between her, the firefighters and her son. After going home and thinking about it, a week later Axelson walked into the firehall to pick up a POC firefighter application form.
“They taught me what firefighting was and how equal firefighting is. The force has come such a long way that there’s tools and techniques that allow women to do the job just as well as men.”
She was a POC firefighter for five and a half years before she was promoted to fire inspector in 2008 and fire prevention officer in 2018.
Back when she was a POC firefighter, she recalled chief Ian Josephson (then assistant chief) and Lt. Don Van Beest pulling her aside and telling her she was very good as a firefighter but had skills and assets that could better serve her elsewhere.
Axelson has a “natural ability” to connect with the public, Josephson said.
“If it wasn’t for Ian and Don, I would never have chosen fire prevention,” she said. “If you pay attention to the cues, you can succeed. When someone pulls you aside and says ‘You might want to think about a different avenue in the same genre,’ don’t push it off. That’s someone saying ‘Here’s a gift.’ Take that gift and use it.”
So she did.
Over the years she has educated the public through various programs including: Too Hot for Tots, a program educating young parents about fire safety in their home; Remembering When, where she teaches senior citizen groups about fire prevention; Learn Not to Burn, a fire safety program for kids up to Grade 2; Getting to Know Fire, a provincial fire and life safety education curriculum for preschoolers to seniors; and Youth Firesetter, an education program for youth who misuse fire.
For the past 10 years, Axelson has advocated for seniors living in care homes who have vision/hearing impairments. She’s brought wireless devices – such as strobes and bed shakers – that connect to bluetooth. The portable devices are much less expensive than hardwiring ones into a unit, plus they can be taken with the resident when they move.
She spearheaded the Home Safe Fire Prevention Program – which is now provincewide – where fire officials visit people’s homes and conduct an analysis of any fire hazards.
Firehall tours now have an education component to them, thanks to Axelson.
“That’s part of the importance of being a good educator is knowing what’s in your jurisdiction and having that resource to give to them,” she said. “We’re here for customer service. Give the community what they want – that’s all I do.”
She also helps organize the CFD’s involvement in various expos and the Safety Fair, is involved in Camp Ignite, teaches at the Justice Institute of B.C., and has volunteered as a fitness instructor for the past 40 years at the YMCA.
“She’s an amazing mentor. I aspire to be like her,” said Rosemary Sciberras, fire inspector and public educator who has worked alongside Axelson for seven years. “She is somebody that is very much deserving of this award and I couldn’t think it could go to anybody better.”
Sciberras, along with assistant fire chief Michal Bourdon, nominated her for the provincial Public Educator of the Year award.
Bourdon calls Axelson “energetic and very passionate with her work.”
“Lisa sees the devastation that fire has on our community and since day one she has made it her goal to make it a safer community through education and prevention,” he said.
She not only educates the public, but firefighters as well.
“Lisa is very creative and has come up with methods to specifically target the fire and life-safety education needs of our community,” said Josephson. “She continuously shares her expertise with our fire crews and assists them as they improve how they educate the public.”
The Fire Prevention Officers’ Association of B.C. does not hand out the Public Educator of the Year award every year, only when someone deserving has been nominated.
“You have to be outstanding in your field,” Axelson said. “These are people who are really active in their communities and really stepping outside that box and not just coming to work every day.”
Many people supported her along the way including Josephson, Van Beest, former fire chief Rick Ryall, her son Alex and husband James Crawford.
She admits she was a little out of her comfort zone when she was handed the award during the Sept. 21 city council meeting.
“As my husband said, you need to be very gracious and you need to smile and say thank you. So I’ve been doing a lot of smiling and saying thank you, because I don’t know what else to say.”
Axelson will be retiring on July 29, 2022, which also marks her 60th birthday.
“It’s time for me to step back and let somebody else take the reins. As much as I don’t want to – because I really love my job – I think it’s time to let the new era fly.”