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Biannual NorCal First Alarm Fire Camp teaches teenage girls critical firefighting skills

Photo courtesy of Diane Hendry
The use of power tools were taught to attendees, such as how to handle a chainsaw.

On Saturday, Sept. 16 and Sunday, Sept. 17, female firefighters from several Northern California fire departments hosted the biannual NorCal First Alarm Fire Camp at College of San Mateo (CSM) for high school girls from across the Bay Area. The camp was no small commitment: It ran from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, with girls rotating through five different activities on each day.

The camp is held twice a year, each in a different location in Northern California. The camp is free of charge and allows attendees to participate in a variety of activities that develop skills related to firefighting. Therapy dogs were on campus to ensure everyone felt supported and comfortable.

The camp was started by Diane Hendry, one of the Vice Presidents of NorCal Women in the Fire Service, five years ago, along with four other women from different fire departments in the Bay Area. Since its inception, the entire camp has been led by female firefighters and instructors.

“We came together and formed NorCal Women in the Fire Service with the goal of exposing young women to the fire service early,” said Hendry, who worked as a firefighter for 31 years in the Fremont Fire Department. “So that one, we could show them that it is a career opportunity and do it in a space of being instructed and led by all women who already work in the fire service. And two, just empowering them to realize they can do more than they think they can.”

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According to the National Fire Protection Association, women make up around 9% of the fire service in America. The goal of the camp is to change that.

“It really brought us back to this high school age of showing young women that this is an opportunity and that you can do it if you want to,” Hendry said. “And then having exposed women younger makes them more successful if they were to get hired, and they weren’t doing these things for the first time.”

The camp’s inclusive and empowering environment doesn’t only cater to girls who are set on becoming firefighters. It is open to all high school females who want to try something new.

“We know that not everybody here wants to be a firefighter. We’re just getting people confidence and exposure to something that they might not be able to do anywhere else,” Christy Baird, fire technology coordinator for CSM, said.

However, the majority of high school students who attended aspire to join the fire service in the future.

“I like helping others, and the job has a lot of adrenaline in it,” junior Emily Cooper, also a student at Castro Valley High School, said.

During the two-day camp, attendees try out a handful of different activities to familiarize themselves with necessary skills in the firefighting profession. Forcible entry, using fire extinguishers, operating hoses and and power tools, climbing an aerial and ground ladder, ventilation and CPR were all practiced at the camp. Attendees also tried on fire equipment such as turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatuses.

The more daunting activities quickly became favorites.

“I liked doing the aerial ladder just because you’re really scared before you start but as soon as you’re halfway up and you’re looking down, it’s not that bad,” senior Olivia Martinez, who attends Castro Valley High School, said.

Martinez and Cooper are both members of Regional Occupation Programs (ROP) at Castro Valley, where they are training to become first responders. Their captain recommended that they enroll in the camp to learn more about the firefighting field. Both Martinez and Cooper feel the camp’s decision to train high school girls is important.

The camp also became a special experience for the firefighters in charge. Lauren Racioppi, who started her position at the Palo Alto Fire Department a month ago, felt connected to the community aspect of the camp. She especially enjoyed mentoring young girls to help them begin their journey towards becoming firefighters.

“I hope to accomplish getting more of these campers just to pique an interest in the fire service and just to be a part of their long career path and just to point these young girls in the right direction,” Racioppi said.

For both Hardy and Racioppi, the chance is a camp to help continue a cycle of positive female mentorship. Racioppi, who used to be a volunteer ski patroller after taking an Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) class, was recommended by other ski patrollers to pursue firefighting. And it was Baird who was ultimately able to guide her towards her firefighting career.

“I didn’t really know growing up that that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t have family in it, I didn’t have a role model to look up to [in the field],” Racioppi said. “I didn’t see women or men really in my life that was a firefighter to look up to. But then going through the stages of it, and seeing people who were role models, like Christy Baird, or other women in fire, it was like ‘Oh, I can do that, I can be that.’”

Hendry was also encouraged to become a firefighter by someone she knew. In 1990, when she was a junior in high school, Hendry decided she wanted to become a firefighter. With a love for riding horses, she at first hoped to go to University of California, Davis (UC Davis) and become a vet , but was guided in a different direction by one of the women she rode horses with.

“And so one of them, her husband, was a firefighter, and it was the early 90s, and there was a big push for looking for women. And she said, ‘Diane, I think you should be a firefighter,’” Hendry said. “So I started looking into it, and it really fit for me.”

Now, as professional and experienced firefighters, Hendry, Racioppi and Baird get to build on their skills and connect with other firefighters.

“It’s nice to talk to somebody who’s gone through the same path I had, as a firefighter,” Baird said.

Overall, the purpose of the camp certainly achieved its goal. Not only did it bring together a community of hardworking female firefighters, but it paved the way for more to come.

This story was originally published on The Burlingame B on September 19, 2023.