Clackamas firefighter participates in first-ever camp for women
Clackamas Fire Capt. Melanie Kinne provided instruction at this summer's first-ever Fire-Up Bootcamp for women age 18 to 35.
Instructors at the all-female firefighting training camp in Gaston were from local and regional fire departments as far away as Los Angeles and Tacoma, Washington. Although other female firefighting camps exist in the area, they are mostly focused on women and girls 14-20.
The Fire-Up Bootcamp was the Portland area's first for women 18 and older — those who are either interested in joining or are early in their careers in fire service or volunteering.
"These camps are usually organized and staffed by female firefighters who volunteer their time because they are passionate about showcasing this life-changing volunteer and employment opportunity to other women, as women statistically make up only about 5% of paid firefighters nationwide," Kinne said.
While other male-dominated professions have gained female participation at much higher rates, women firefighters remain at 5% since Kinne joined the service in 2001. There are lots of theories about why women are underrepresented in the firefighting field, but the general opinion seems to be that young girls do not see themselves as future firefighters because they lack visible role models.
"People need to have role models, and there are just not a lot of women in the fire service," said Lt. Ila Borders with the Cornelius Fire Department, one of the camp's instructors and organizers. "There are some fire departments that do have 10% women, and it's just like, oh my gosh, it's unheard of. We're looking at usually around 3%."
Borders, who famously is the only women in modern history to play professional baseball, recruited Kinne to be an incident safety officer at the camp.
"Lieutenant Borders had come to the conclusion that, though early role modeling is important, many women come to the fire service as a second career after being involved in professional sports, the construction industry or health care," Kinne said. "This is true for Ila, myself and a number of female firefighters I know. I immediately saw the validity of her argument and wanted to see firsthand what kind of response we would get from this event."
Lt. Matt Aalto, a training officer for Gaston Fire District, recognized that men and women alike often come to firefighting as a second career from other occupations that require athleticism or mechanical aptitude. He and Borders are credited with coming up with the idea of the camp and bringing it to fruition.
"It gives an opportunity to train, to learn, to share experiences together," Aalto said. "This is why we're holding it, so that women understand, 'It's for you, and let us show you why.'"
Aalto and Borders were able to secure space and gear for a camp of 16 participants, and without advertising, had 60 applicants.
"The interest far outpaced the availability, and I hope that we can move this event closer to Portland to a larger fire department — such as Clackamas Fire — to meet the demand next year," Kinne said. "After the conclusion of the camp, more than half of the participants reached out to an instructor for more information on how to proceed with getting involved in firefighting."
Although the camp was held at the Gaston Fire District, Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and the Cornelius Fire Department — which share a fire chief with Gaston — were additional hosts. Hillsboro Fire & Rescue and the Clackamas Fire District provided additional sponsorship. IAFF local 1159 also provided financial support.
The boot camp July 21-22 led women through firefighting drills like gearing up, raising ladders, deploying hoses and extinguishing live fires.
"We're going to give them a taste of putting on the gear and breaking some things and burning some things," said Barbara Widlund, assistant chief for the Clark County Fire District and a camp instructor.
Borders said an important part of this camp was just showing female representation in firefighting.
"You see little girls, or even women, who are like, 'I didn't know that women could do this,'" Borders said. "So we're trying to say, 'Hey, we're you. This is the most awesome profession in the world. Let's share this with you and see if you get the firefighting bug also.'"
Kinne was a carpenter and cabinet maker when a firefighter/neighbor recruited her based on her construction background. She volunteers at these camps because being a firefighter has become more than a job for her and many other firefighters; it's become a lifestyle and an integral part of her identity.
"We're not kidding when we say that we have the best job in the world and that we're family to each other," she said. "Many people who become firefighters have experienced this through a family or social connection and hence have the drive to pursue this hard-to-attain position."
Kinne said she was fortunate to have someone introduce her to the fire service when she was in her late 20s.
"Otherwise, I would have never considered this profession as an option for myself or even known how rewarding and fulfilling it is to improve people's lives for a living," she said. "I am paying it forward and, hopefully, I can help open these doors for other woman. As an added bonus I get to spend some time in the company of other female firefighters, which is rare since there are not very many of us."
Kinne is among many members of Clackamas Fire who volunteer to better the community based on their passion. Firefighters in the department travel the world with Global Mission Readiness to teach a variety of firefighting and emergency medical skills, as this newspaper reported. Other members of the fire department help raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association or manage nonprofit organizations that facilitate firefighter training.
Meerah Powell of Oregon Public Broadcasting, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group, contributed to this report.
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