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San Diego prep-academy enters 4th year of preparing female firefighters

Participants learn a variety of skills to expose them to the fire service and build confidence


San Diego Fire Fighter, Cathy Broderick works with one of the groups at the interior attack training sessions. The group is taking part in the Women’s Fire Prep Academy hosted by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department at their department training facility on Saturday, February 17, 2024, in San Diego, CA.

Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune

By Emily Alvarenga
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — As trainees in the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s Women’s Fire Prep Academy started their morning run Saturday, a chant filled the air.

“I want to be a firefighter. But not just any firefighter. A ( San Diego ) firefighter.”

The call kicked off a hard day of training in various firefighting skills at the agency’s facility in the Midway District. But it was also a mantra for participants who hope to join the fire service one day.

It’s what organizers hope, as well.

The training academy, in its fourth year and its fourth week, is part of the fire department’s effort to attract more women firefighters. It’s designed to show women what reaching that goal will take.

Selena Laniel, a San Diego firefighter and the program’s coordinator, knows firsthand just how difficult going through the fire academy without experience can be.

“As a single mom with two kids trying to make ends meet in San Diego, going out volunteering in departments… (was) impossible,” she said. “So when I started my academy, every day it was such a high hill to climb. It was so hard.”

Laniel said a program like the prep academy would have allowed her to build a vital foundation to help her succeed. “It would have made a big difference in my confidence level going into the academy,” she said. “It gives you a direction on what (firefighters) need physically, mentally.”

During the six Saturday training sessions, participants will learn a variety of skills from professional firefighters — most of whom are women — including how to use two firefighter life-lines: the self-contained breathing apparatus worn while fighting fires and the heavy hoses used to extinguish a blaze.

They’re also taught how to safely maneuver ground ladders and use a chainsaw as well as workouts to become firefighting fit.

“The goal of the program was to expose women to the fire service … and build their confidence and show that they are capable of doing the job,” said Fire Battalion Chief Chad Willenberg. “So every skill that we (teach) are those where women typically struggle with most (in the fire academy).”

On the academy’s first day, nearly 60 hopefuls showed up for a fitness evaluation to see if they’d be selected to participate. Ultimately, 12 women and 12 men were chosen for the prep academy — most had no prior fire service experience.

And unlike your typical fire academy, women in the program are taught by other women.

“If you have somebody who doesn’t look like you demonstrating (a technique), it’s harder to make that leap visually to what you’re going to physically,” said fire Battalion Chief Becky Newell.

Pairing women with women doesn’t just demystify the techniques, Newell said, it also helps participants learn tips and tricks that work better for their body type and strength.

Standing at 5 feet 3 inches tall, San Diego resident Madison Draper says learning from someone more her size rather than a 6-foot-tall man, as most of her instructors have been in prior training, has been fantastic.

“Learning the ways that (women) do it I think is just so key because I feel like there’s so many times that I’ve learned how to do things myself,” Draper said. “I’m learning how to do things probably in a better way for my body.”

Women have served in San Diego’s fire service for nearly five decades, but the department has struggled in recent years to diversify its ranks.

The department currently has only 56 women firefighters who represent a little over 5 percent of the staff.

Seeing the need, Laniel, who’d been volunteering at a similar women’s fire prep program in Los Angeles County — which has a 98 percent success rate — thought to bring the program to San Diego. The women’s academy is now considered a valuable tool to increase the number of women in the fire service.

Since San Diego launched its program in 2021, several trainees have either become or are on their way to becoming firefighters in San Diego or at other agencies such as Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.

“We hope they stay here (in San Diego ), but we also just want people to have a baseline of skills and exposure to the experience so that no matter where they go, they will be successful,” Newell said.

The women’s academy is provided at no cost to participants and is funded by the city with support from the San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation and private sponsors. It is open to people who are 18 and over, have a current emergency medical technician certificate and a high school diploma or GED.

The department also offers a year-round weekend training camp for youth ages 16 to 21 years old and an empowerment camp for girls 14 to 18.

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