After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Girl’s Camp returned.
“We were all ready to go,” said Kristine Larson, battalion chief and president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service. “It was so great to see the girls come in this morning with smiles on their faces.”
Girls, mostly from the San Fernando Valley, filed into the Drill Tower 81 in Panorama City and stepped into a very nontraditional environment surrounded by firefighter gear and equipment.
On the first day, they received instruction and a demonstration, they did CPR and on the second day – they were using the equipment and were referred to as “cadets.”
This was the first time since the pandemic hit in March 2019 that the girls’ camp was held. And the female firefighters on site were anxious to share their enthusiasm for their jobs with the young girls.
Larson shared her lifetime of experience; she became a firefighter right after she got out of college — that was 32 years ago.
“What started out as a job turned out to be an outstanding career. I love it and when you do what you love, it’s not a job, it’s enjoyment,” she said.
The girls that attended weren’t required to have a desire to become a firefighter but were invited just to come to the camp and “have fun.”
“Girls camp allows these girls the opportunity to try things in a nontraditional environment. Firefighting is a nontraditional job, so we’re giving them an opportunity to see what a career in a nontraditional job is like,” Larson explained. “We’re introducing some things that are in the fire service. So if this is a career path they want to take, then we’re giving them a little bit of an introduction into that with female mentorship,” said Larson.
The people that led the instruction were all female firefighters, and the girls soon learned that this camp would be much more than hearing speeches – it was a “hands-on kind of camp,” led by capable, strong, ambitious women.
They broke up the cadets into groups so they could see how vital teamwork is in everyday firefighting.
On the first day, they heard lectures, saw demonstrations, did CPR and hose handling. By the second day, they put it all into action.
“They learned how to start chainsaws and rotary SOS. They’ve learned about our PPE, learned how to climb ladders,” said Larson.
They cover a lot of ground in a weekend.
“They’re doing search and rescue. They’re learning about the breathing apparatus. They’re climbing the aerial ladder, they’re cutting with the chainsaws, cutting with a rotary saw and learning how to use fire extinguishers,” Larson described.
An Empowering Experience
Alondra Parra, a North Hills resident, said she is naturally shy and wasn’t feeling very confident when she first arrived, but with the encouragement of the female firefighters on site, her point of view changed.
Parra came to the two-day camp with a group of other girls from James Monroe Senior High School, which has a Firefighter Academy Magnet.
“I’m kind of a small girl,” Parra described, but she happily discovered that she could carry a fire hose and climb a ladder.
“I always thought that the kind of girl that I am, in the kind of shape I am … I always doubted myself, but [I learned] never doubt yourself by the way you look.
“I really didn’t think I could handle the hoses, but after I realized I could, I stopped doubting myself on anything else I could do.”
It was empowering for the girls, who numbered 50 strong including Parra, to see that there are women in positions of power and leadership.
“My instructor told me to never give up, to always reach out for what you want and to leave a message and show others that if you can do it, others could do it too,” said Parra.
LA City Council President Nury Martinez joined LAFD Fire Chief Kristin Crowley to greet the girls. With Crowley present, the girls saw firsthand there are women that lead and it is possible to rise to the very top of the ranks.
Martinez put on a firefighter turnout coat and took photos with the girls, most of whom live in her district.
“Sometimes it only takes a female role model, to see you can do it,” Martinez said.
To Parra’s surprise, she said that she actually found the exercises easier than she expected and she was really encouraged by the words of the professional female firefighters.
“I’m not really a person to try things. But seeing this program really made me try harder and to see how to improve something and how many tools and things I could get into my hands,” she said.
The need to embrace female firefighters and increase the numbers is a nationwide issue. Across the country, women only make up 4 percent of firefighters. In Los Angeles County, female firefighters are currently 3.5 percent.
“We would really like to increase that but it just takes time,” said Larson. The LAFD camp is a pathway to increase those numbers and give more opportunities to girls to see what can be achieved.
Female firefighters said to Larson, “bring a little of everything,” to the table.
“We firefighters really love what we do and we really do have a passion to serve,” she said. “Female firefighters bring diversity of thought and attitude, a different skill set and mindset,” which are positive contributions, but the training is the same.
“All the firefighters are trained in the exact same manner. So, what we bring is sometimes a different level of compassion. Sometimes we’ve come from different backgrounds that add value to our skill set. We could have come from the trades and we’re going more and more technology-based within the fire department. So having any type of diverse skill set just makes sense,” said Larson.
However, whether male or female, all those who are firefighters seem to have a common point of view about loving the job.
“I think because, you know, some of us have never grown up and we still want to be kids. So riding on a big funny shiny red firetruck or fire engine is just a lot of fun. Going lights and sirens down the street, getting to go places that you don’t normally go and be welcomed with open arms,” Larson explained with a chuckle.
But, she said – there are many opportunities in the field, beyond riding a fire truck, especially in large departments like the city of Los Angeles Fire Department.
“We have Fire Prevention Bureau inspectors where they go and inspect the higher hazard buildings, we have helicopter pilots. We have hazmat units. We have fire boats, fire boat drivers, so there’s a whole lot of different things you can do within the fire department,” said Larson.
“Once you get in and you get a little time on, then you’re able to promote through the ranks and work your way all the way up to fire if you choose to,” said Larson.
“If you’ve never seen a female firefighter, you don’t know that this is a career opportunity. Right? So what we like to say is – if she can see it, she can be it,” Larson said.
That’s already the case for Parra. To her big surprise, by the end of the two days, she won the top outstanding achievement award for her leadership for pushing herself and encouraging the other girls.
“Now that I’ve come here, it really got my goals higher into becoming a firefighter/ paramedic. Before, I wasn’t sure if I could do it or if I had the strength to do it. But now that I’ve come here, it really made me realize that I can.”
“If I get more physical with more training at the academy at my school, with the [physical] training they make us do, I’m pretty sure by the time I graduate high school I am going to be very fit,” she said.
Parra said her next sights are on going to college and becoming a paramedic.
“Once you do something, you’ll always have a strength inside. It will come out and then that doubt is going to go away. You’ll be able to do it and not doubt yourself — I can do it!” Parra said confidently.
Girls aged 14 through 18 are invited to explore the possibility of a future career with the Los Angeles Fire Department with active duty LAFD female firefighters and cadets. For more information, go to https://joinlafd.org/index.cfm?section=girlscamp.