Young women in West Linn and Wilsonville climb the ladder
In an effort to debunk the stereotype that firefighting is a man's job, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue partnered with Portland Fire & Rescue to host an all-female fire camp Aug. 2-4.
Each day, 47 young women ages 16-20 — including two from West Linn and one from Wilsonville — spent eight hours at TVF&R's training facility in Sherwood participating in workshops, hands-on learning and activities that introduced them to fire service careers.
The camp, which was organized, implemented and executed by female firefighters, was taught by 30 counselors from different fire departments across Oregon, Washington, California and Alaska.
"TVF&R is working hard to recruit more diverse candidates so we can better reflect the communities we serve. Unfortunately, only 5% of our frontline personnel are female. We know there are many more women who have the strength, compassion, intellect and resolve to be professional firefighters," said TVF&R Public Affairs Chief Cassandra Ulven in a press release. "We hope this camp inspires the young women who participated to consider a fire service career. I'm so proud of all the counselors who organized and operated this camp. They work throughout the year to empower others."
Portland Fire & Rescue started the camp 11 years ago and TVF&R has been participating for the last five or six years but this is only the second time its hosted the camp at TVF&R facilities.
Portland's fire department hosted the first camp this summer in June and TVF&R hosted the second camp this month. Between the two, 113 females participated in the camps, and the Sherwood camp increased participation by 10 people more than last year.
"I think that we got better at promoting the opportunity," Ulven said. "The word of mouth has spread, social media efforts have helped reach the right audience. Some of this is in preparation for the future. You plant a seed. You may not be able to harvest it right away, but it grows and flourishes."
During the camp, participants went through various stations and scenarios each day that included ladder exercises, learning to tie different knots, presentations on what firefighters do and emergency medical information, and how to open and attach a fire hose to a hydrant.
"It was such an empowering, inspiring event because on the first day you see these young women, you see them a little uncertain. Some were a little timid or shy maybe a little apprehensive because they didn't know what to expect," Ulven said, adding that by the end of the camp, the young women accomplished things some never thought they'd do. "It was just a transformative, obvious change. … You could tell they were more confident."
Because the camp was taught at the training facility, campers learned how to search a building systematically during search and rescue simulations. They wore block-out masks to imitate the appearance of a smoky fire and learned to crawl low in different patterns.
Forcible entry was another workshop. There were props with metal doors set up to simulate what would be seen in a commercial building and warehouse. Campers learned forcible entry techniques and how to use tools to get through doors that are locked or have difficult access.
"They got to see their strengths but got to see how good technique, you can do a lot with good technique even if you're not a big person," Ulven said.
The amount of women firefighters at TVF&R is in line with the national average of career female firefighters, which is 4%, according to 2017 data from the National Fire Protection Association.
"It's far too low," Ulven said. "Part of events like Metro Fire camp are aimed to increase that awareness."
Ulven added that it's difficult to hire a diverse population until people see more people similar to them in a specific role.
"That's I think one of the powerful aspects of Portland Metro Fire Camp," Ulven said. "Young women seeing people that look like them and learning how to accomplish that work and get advice for how to be strong enough mentally, physically and how to be competitive in the application process."
Regardless of gender, ethnicity or background, Ulven said, there are a lot of people that apply to become a firefighter and not a lot of spots. In the past, she's seen thousands apply for 16 positions.
People have to be 18 years old to become a firefighter and a lot of the young women who participate will stay in touch with the professional firefighters who oftentimes provide mentorship and guidance.
"Whether or not they move on to consider becoming a firefighter, I feel like their horizons were expanded to consider other things they might not have before," Ulven said.
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