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Getting a glimpse: Camp Ember offers teenage girls a look at fire service

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By Deborah Swearingen

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

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As a female firefighter, Rachel Kohler knows this struggle firsthand. And because of it, the 16-year West Metro Fire Rescue firefighter worked with Red Rocks Community College and the Arvada Fire Department to host the inaugural Camp Ember, a four-day immersive fire-based camp for girls.

Held at West Metro’s training center and funded through a federally awarded Perkins Grant, the overnight camp included bunker gear drills, fire hose handling, search and rescue, CPR and First Aid certification, team building, fitness and nutrition and more. It was open to metro-area girls ages 16 to 18.

In addition, though, Kohler hoped the camp would provide female role models for those looking to join the fire service one day.

“The fire service historically always has and still does struggle with recruiting diversity in all forms,” Kohler said. “Everybody knows it’s a traditionally male-dominated workforce.”

From 2011 to ‘15, the annual average number of women working as career firefighters in the United States was 13,750. That’s less than 5 percent of all career firefighters.

Young women begin forming ideas about what they can one day be in their adolescent years, Kohler said. Without women firefighters to look to, it’s unlikely a teenage girl will consider a career in the fire service.

From Kohler’s perspective, fire departments are failing to capture the attention of women as they make decisions about their future careers.

The lack of visibility is something Kelly Circle, dean of instruction at Red Rocks Community College, spoke to, as well.

“We didn’t have this 20, 30 years ago,” Circle said.

“They were still referred to as firemen,” she said. “So the fact that we’re able to introduce them to other options … and that they’re encouraged to do whatever they can do, whatever they want to do, it is just inspiring.”

Teamwork and confidence

Beyond the physical requirements of the job, working as a firefighter is very much about teamwork, leadership and confidence. This is something the Camp Ember instructors aimed to convey through team-building exercises and mentorship discussions with the 15 girls at last week’s camp.

“It’s not just about hiring these young women,” Kohler said, “it’s also about empowering them.”

Thus, as the camp entered into its final day, many participants said teamwork was one of their most important takeaways.

Lauren Pollard, 16, of Littleton said she learned “a lot of teamwork and strength” through her time at Camp Ember.

“If you tell yourself you’re not going to do something, you’re not,” she said. “But if you can tell yourself that you know you can do it, you’ll be able to find a way to do it.”

Confidence was an important camp lesson for Teresa Kenison, 17, of Wheat Ridge.

“You have to be confident in yourself. You have to be confident in the people who you’re living with and work with,” she said. “You have to really know the true meaning behind family. I mean, this basically is your second family. It’s your home away from home.”

Growth and development

Kohler and her team now will take time to recover and evaluate the successes and shortcomings of this year’s program before planning for next year’s Camp Ember.

Though the camp was just four days and three nights, Kohler witnessed a phenomenal amount of growth in the girls that participated.

“We saw growth and development in these girls that you couldn’t imagine in just four days,” she said. “Some of them came in shy and looking at the floor, and they left standing tall and using their voice and jumping in to be the first to try something.”

Circle witnessed the growth and confidence shift in the girls, too. She worked mostly behind-the-scenes but was around to experience the camp firsthand.

“I’ve seen the light bulb go on where they’ve gone, ‘I get it. I can do this,’” Circle said. “It’s magic. I love it.”

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.