Calif. camp offers girls experience in firefighting
“HERo Fire Camp” in Marin County offered two days of hands-on experience for young women interested in the fire service
By Krissy Waite
The Marin Independent Journal
MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — When San Marin High School senior Emma Rogers began the college application process a few months ago, she quickly realized something was off.
“It’s just not for me,” said Rogers, 17, of Novato. “I didn’t want to go and spend thousands of dollars on a four-year degree just so I can go work in an office.”
Rogers was one of 23 teens who attended the new “Hero Fire Camp,” a two-day firefighter training course for girls sponsored by Marin fire agencies and run by Golden State Women in the Fire Service. The nonprofit aims to introduce young women to careers in firefighting.
“There isn’t really anything else I want to do,” said Rogers, who grew up around firefighters. “This is something I can feel proud of saying and it’s a job that really matters. There’s nothing more important than keeping people safe.”
Rogers spent Saturday in 90-degree heat at the Novato Fire District training facility at Station 62 on Atherton Avenue. Dressed in protective gear, participants pulled hose, crawled through a smoke-filled fire simulator, lugged 110-pound dummies, cut through cars and climbed a five-story ladder.
While a bit concerned about the physical side of firefighting, Rogers said the camp has helped expose her to what she would be expected to do in a fire academy.
Camp participants rotated in small groups to various stations. They learned techniques in handling chainsaws, vehicle extraction, forcible entry and carrying and climbing different kinds of ladders. They also were involved in a search-and-rescue exercise and completed a physical agility course.
They also learned about next steps, such as school programs and academy options. All teachers at the camp identified as women — an essential part of the program, according to Courtney Hughes-Plocher, a Vacaville firefighter/paramedic who works with the nonprofit.
Hughes-Plocher started as an emergency medical technician and moved into firefighting, which she said offered better benefits, pay and stability.
“We believe in the saying, ‘If you can see it, you can be it’,” she said. “When I was growing up, there was nothing like this. I had no idea this was even an option.”
Bella Deruvo, a seasonal firefighter with the Marin County Fire Department and an instructor at the camp, said she knew in high school that she wanted to pursue the career, but she felt unsure while going through the fire academy.
Deruvo said only three women were in her class, and all looked physically stronger than she did. Both left halfway through the program.
Deruvo said her teachers were men. It wasn’t until she met other female firefighters and talked about their collective experiences that she finally felt confident.
“It was incredibly affirming, to know there are other female firefighters out there and they’ve experienced the same things,” Deruvo said. “As long as you’re passionate about something, you can do it.”
The same was true for Emily Easom, a firefighter with the Bolinas Fire Protection District. Easom, another instructor at the camp, said she did not know she could be a firefighter until she saw a Cal Fire flyer with a woman on it.
“You see men in the fire service, but you just don’t see women,” Easom said. “But anything in this career women can do, they just don’t know it yet.”
About 3% of the firefighters in Marin County are women, according to John Bagala, president of the Marin Professional Firefighters union. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that only 5% of career firefighters in the country identify themselves as females.
“It is still shockingly low and unacceptable as far as I’m concerned,” Bagala said. “It tells a very clear story about how much more we have to work on and how we have to make the fire service attractive to qualified female candidates.”
Marin’s fire agencies employed about 440 firefighters as of December, Bagala said. Only 12 are women, yet females make up about 51% of the general population.
The idea to run a women’s fire camp came from Marin’s own female firefighters, who suggested it to department and union leaders. They then reached out to the nonprofit, which had experience in running female firefighter camps, to help.
“Anyone who is an athlete in any way is absolutely capable, and there are various techniques to do things, too,” Hughes-Plocher said. She pointed out that between 75% to 85% of what firefighters do is medical.
To become a firefighter in Marin County, candidates must go through fire academy training, and pass written and physical tests through the Firefighter Candidate Testing Center. Additionally, Bagala said, most entry-level positions in Marin fire departments require candidates to have completed paramedic school.
“It’s a lengthy process,” he said. “If someone were to start from scratch tomorrow, it would take them about four years to complete that process.”
Bagala added that all fire departments in Marin are struggling to recruit and retain qualified candidates, regardless of sex. For agencies to be more equitable for women specifically, he said the pregnancy and prenatal care policies need to change, protective equipment fitted for women needs to be widely used, and the “good old boys” network culture needs to change.
“Every one of our departments could do better when it comes to their diversity training, like having realistic conversations about appropriate behaviors in the fire station and making sure everyone has a respectful working environment,” Bagala said. “The facilities have to be appropriate too, the bathrooms, the bunks, even the workout equipment.”
While there is widespread acknowledgement that there is a long way to go with gender diversity within fire departments, many said the camp is one step toward progress by exposing young women to the career option.
According to both Erika Enslin, the founder and president of Golden State Women in the Fire Service, and Hughes-Plocher, the camp is mainly about empowering young women and showing them that they are capable of this career.
“My favorite part is watching girls that come in the morning of day one and watching very different girls leave the afternoon of day two,” Enslin said. “And seeing the growth and the confidence and the empowerment that they have learned at camp.”