The Los Angeles Fire Department admittedly does not have a great history of employing women as firefighters. The first woman firefighter, Cindy Barbee, was hired in 1983. But even though women work in all levels in the department including paramedics, divers, emergency dispatchers and engineers, and have reached the upper echelons of management, including the ranks of captain and battalion chief, their overall numbers among the LAFD’s 3,402 uniformed personnel remain small.
Hiring female firefighters remains a particular sore point. In 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed that at least five percent of the department would be women by 2020. As of July 31, 2018, 3.2 percent of the department’s personnel were female (109) and 96.8 percent were male (3,293).
The department is looking at more ways to interest girls and women into the career field. One of those methods was on display at Station 81 in Panorama City on Saturday, March 2, and Sunday, March 3.
LAFD hosted a “Girls Camp” for youths, ages 14-18, to introduce them to the department and give them an up-close as well as hands-on view of the equipment and training. A total of 92 girls braved the intermittent rain showers to participate on Saturday, and 88 were still on hand to finish the two-day camp on Sunday.
Although the “Girls Camp” program has only been available for two years, this was the sixth one presented, said department spokeswoman Kristine Larson.
“We want to introduce young girls to a potential career in the fire department, and also it’s kind of a non-traditional job, so we want let them know about it,” Larson said.
Larson, who was promoted to battalion chief in 2017 and is currently in charge of recruitment for LAFD, said the six camps have been attended by 451 girls. She didn’t know if any had yet applied for the department — “they’re probably still too young” — but learning about the job and the opportunities could create an awareness where there wasn’t one before.
“We have [other] youth programs to try and steer the kids toward,” she said. “We have youth academies (including one in the Valley at Station 81). We also have our Explorer cadet programs, which are available once they turn 15. The kids, male or female, can go through steps to train to be a firefighter. And there are four online high school magnet programs, with more to come.”
But the camps, like the one at Panorama City, are aimed squarely at young females. Because, as the department itself notes on its websites, most women don’t decide on a firefighting career until long after high school. Besides the physical capability that is required, handling the mental and psychological stress in saving lives and property is critical.
That’s why the department officials and active firefighters at the camp did more than just lecture the attendees or show videos of their work. They also put the girls through some basic training during the two days that included climbing ladders, working with active fire hoses, handling chainsaws and rotary saws, wearing ‘turnout’ gear (the yellow outer gear fire fighters wear) and performing a “search-and-rescue” exercise inside a building filled with smoke.
“It’s not so much about being in shape as it is overcoming basic obstacles,” Larson said. “For example, if you’re afraid of heights we’ll challenge you to just try it. It’s about empowering the girls to say ‘I was afraid to do this, but I did it. What else might I be able to do in life?’”
Encouragement to consider LAFD as a career choice was offered by others at the event.
“I am committed to this camp because I got my start in the Fire Service by participating in an LAFD youth program as a teenager and it changed my life forever,” said Battalion Chief Kristina Kepner.
“I understand the importance of having a goal from a young age and working towards it emphatically. It is important to our community because we are introducing these young women to a career with the LAFD. As a long term recruitment tool, we hope to get them excited and ready to become firefighters so we can continue to increase the number of women in our Department. Diversity is crucial to providing exceptional community service and Girls Camp is just the beginning.”
LA Councilmember Nury Martinez, in whose district Station 81 is located, also offered support.
“Girls Camp is so special to me because it gives these young women an opportunity to do things they never thought they could. In just two days they gain self-confidence, leadership skills, firefighter mentors, and the ability to know they can,” Martinez said.
It remains to be seen if any of the youths who walked out of the event clutching their certificates of completion will eventually apply to the LAFD to become a firefighter.
But at least they know now what the job entails. And they also know they are wanted.