Girls’ Fire Camp encourages female firefighter recruitment
Story courtesy of Cardinal News Staff
When Melanie Wimmer of Salem, Va., asked her daughter if she wanted to take part in the Girls’ Fire Camp last summer in Botetourt County, 10-year old Mia told her mom she didn’t realize that women could be firefighters.
She soon learned firsthand that they certainly can.
Mia was excited to participate in the camp and learned more about what her 27-year-old brother does as a career firefighter and emergency medical technician for Botetourt Fire & EMS. She also learned that she, too, could do the job.
“It’s something different and it’s a program to let these ladies know that you can be a firefighter, you can be a paramedic,” says Wimmer about the Girls’ Fire Camp.
Botetourt is planning to hold the Girls’ Fire Camp again this year at Lord Botetourt High School in Daleville to inform kids, especially young girls, about the option of a future career in fire rescue, and possibly to get parents interested in volunteering or becoming career employees.
It’s part of the agency’s efforts to address the challenges of recruiting and retention that many departments in Virginia and across the U.S. are currently facing, especially when it comes to attracting women to the historically male-dominated profession.
The fire camp idea was so popular in its first year that all the initial spots were filled within 24 hours after registration began. Organizers originally planned to have 50 openings but expanded it to 58. Another 45 girls, unfortunately, remained on a waiting list.
This year’s event is scheduled for June 24 and registration opens on April 3. The camp will be open to upcoming first through tenth graders this year, and just like last year, it is free to attend. “Spots will be limited, and we expect tickets to go quickly,” says Taylor Lunsford, recruitment and retention specialist for Botetourt Fire & EMS. “Information will be posted at botetourtfireems.org and on our social media closer to registration.”
Lunsford says a $5,000 grant from the International Association of Fire Chiefs VolunteerWorkforce Solutions makes the annual one-day event possible. “We are looking forward to continuing to provide interactive education and showing more girls that the fire & EMS field is for them too,” she says.
The first half of the one-day program is generally focused on fire safety in the home, and the science of how fires operate. The girls get to use a small hose to spray water on a fire and learn to use an extinguisher. They also are shown a mock car crash and the rescue of an injured person by an all-women crew of first responders.
Elementary school girls take part in the first half of the day’s events. Older girls also participate in the second session, which is focused on EMT work. They learn about first aid and CPR and, under heavy supervision, they may get to use equipment that extracts people from car crashes, like the “Jaws of Life.”
The Girls’ Fire Camp is held in honor of the late Helen “Gracey” Humbert, a retired Botetourt Fire & EMS captain who also worked for Roanoke Fire EMS. She died in April 2022 after a long battle with breast cancer.
Lunsford recalls that when she was a high school student in Botetourt, it was not widely known that a fire-rescue career was even available to women. Whenever she would see fire-EMS recruiters, they were always men.
“You didn’t ever picture yourself in that position. It was hard to visualize,” she says. “[Firefighting and EMS services were] something that were always there when you needed them, but not something you thought of as a career.”
Jessica Moreno, a Botetourt resident and former nurse at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, signed up her three daughters, 9-year-old Raelyn Clark, 11-year-old Jalissa Moreno and 13-year-old Faith Cramer, for last year’s fire camp. She says there generally aren’t a lot of activities for kids in Botetourt and that this was an interesting one.
“They don’t have to be firefighters, but it’s great just to encourage them that women can do it as well,” says Moreno, who herself is working on getting a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and wants to be an FBI agent.
“They were very excited,” Moreno says of her daughters. “They thought they were going to go into a burning building and put out a fire. I told them there might be a little fire, like a demonstration, but it would be learning and demonstration.”
Nationwide, only 4% of career firefighters and about 11% of volunteer fire service personnel are women, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA.
In Virginia and elsewhere, agencies are having trouble recruiting and retaining both men and women, says Larry Gwaltney, executive director of the Virginia State Firefighters Association. “Every volunteer agency that I know of needs help,” says Gwaltney, a retired battalion chief for Hampton Fire & Rescue.
Chief Jason Ferguson of Botetourt Fire & EMS agrees and says his department has seen fewer and fewer people of any gender, interested in a career as a firefighters or EMT in recent years.
“We have so much to offer besides just day-to-day emergencies that we respond to,” he says, adding that working in the fire-EMS field offers “a gateway to the healthcare industry.”
“ [Firefighting and EMS services were] something that were always there when you needed them, but not something you thought of as a career.” – Taylor Lunsford, recruitment and retention specialist, Botetourt Fire & EMS
“It gives folks a chance to see what medicine is all about,” Ferguson adds. “A lot of physicians started as EMTs, because it really prepares you.”
GOING FOR IT
Laura Kate Jennings-Brink, a volunteer EMT and now also a volunteer firefighter with the Read Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, says last year’s Girls’ Fire Camp inspired her to get her firefighter certification. “Seeing how excited all the girls were last year really inspired me to prove to myself that I could do it and go all the way,” she says. “I used to be a blue helmet EMT, which meant I had limited access during calls, but I went ahead and got my certification. Now I’m a yellow helmet, which means I can do it all,” she says.
While Jennings-Brink’s story is uplifting, Deputy Chief Marci Stone of Roanoke Fire-EMS agrees that there is an overall downward change in recruitment for firefighter positions.
She attributes the decline, in part, to the idea that many young people are now encouraged to go to college and end up leaving their hometowns and entering the white-collar workforce. Stone says that a fire-rescue career is often seen as blue-collar work because only a high school diploma is required.
“Another part of the reason it’s so hard to recruit both men and women is that many fire-rescue agencies require employees to work 24-hour shifts, making it difficult for new employees to take care of family obligations,” Stone says.
She adds that she has been involved in discussions about possibly changing the requirement but there has been resistance to change.
“We do have to look at the future to ensure that all the policies and practices, including our shifts, are inclusive,” she says.
According to Stone, the Roanoke department had 243 full-time career fire-rescue personnel in 2022, but only six of them were women, including her. In 2022 in the city of Salem, only four out of 70 full-time fire-EMT employees were women, says Deputy Chief Matt Rickman of Salem Fire-EMS. And only about eight to 10 of the department’s 25 part-time employees were women.
The fire-rescue agencies in Salem, Botetourt, Roanoke and Roanoke County use a joint-hiring process. In a typical hiring cycle, Rickman says, the team of four departments typically has no more than four women applicants eligible for hire.
“Some years we don’t have any,” he says, adding that Salem has hired about five women in the past five years.
When Stone began her career as a firefighter, she said she initially had to show her male colleagues that she could measure up and then had to prove herself again each time she was promoted. Stone says she and a colleague became the first women to be hired for fire suppression duties in Roanoke in the late 1990s.
“I had to have grit. I had to have drive and ambition,” she says. “There was a microscope on me.”
Stone became a volunteer EMT at age 16 when she was a student at Franklin County High School. She had been in a car accident at age 15, and a then-16-year-old fellow Franklin High School student was one of the volunteer EMTs who responded to the scene.
“My favorite part of the Girls’ Fire Camp experience is watching how empowered the girls are during the camp.” – Christina Blankenship, Botetourt Fire & EMS
While they were in the back of an ambulance, she asked him about volunteering and later went on a ride-along with him. When she was on crutches because of her knee injury, the young man even helped carry her things when they were at school.
“I wanted to serve in the community, and I wanted to help people in need, and I wanted to be outside,” Stone says. “I love the job. I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I really feel like it’s a calling.”
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This article comes from Cardinal News, an online nonprofit news agency based in Southwest Virginia.