Girls Fire Camp shows high school girls a future in firefighting

Dozens of high school-aged girls will join together with veteran female firefighters for a one-day fire camp this weekend. The goal is to introduce girls to careers in the fire service and to give them a glimpse into not only what they can be but what they can do.  

This will be the fifth NorCal First Alarm Girls Fire Camp put on by the NorCal Women in the Fire Service.   

"Nationwide we are at four percent, and it’s pretty much the lowest out of any career, especially public safety careers," said Kimberly Larson, Alameda County Fire Captain and the group's president. 

The small numbers can make it hard to recruit because "that fraternity can be a hard thing for women to break into," said Larson.

She brought this camp to the Bay Area after being inspired by a program called Camp Blaze in Washington State. 

"There are battalion chief, officers, engineers, and people of every rank doing the same thing, breaking bread, sharing stories, and providing mentorship," said Larson, "and that sense of community isn't something that I previously experienced in the fire service." 

Larson is a pioneer, but she didn't grow up wanting to be one. In fact, she didn't even want to be a firefighter until her dad who was a volunteer firefighter invited her to a training drill.  

"We broke down doors, threw ladders, pulled hose, and talked about what to do if a firefighter goes down,’ said Larson, "I thought, ‘This is awesome, they will pay me to do this?’"

She didn't have a single female firefighter to look up to at the time, said Larson. Instead, the male instructor at her first fire class in Massachusetts spent 30 minutes telling the class why women in the fire service just caused problems.

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"After half an hour, he got to roll call," Larson explained, "he got to my name and said, ‘Larson, Kim,’ and said ‘Okay, who is the woman?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And he said, ‘Stand up.’ Then, he shamelessly did the elevator eyes."    

But Larson persevered.  She is now a captain with Alameda County. 

"Right now, I’m one of maybe 4-6 female company officers in my department," said Larson. But being a pioneer is hard, "you are still the only one, or the first." She’d rather not have that moniker.   

So she's trying to change that, by helping girls see what can be.  

"It's so cool to hear young people see that as a possibility," said Larson. "At the end of the day, our biggest goal is to make them see they could do anything they want to do." 

Fitness coach and aspiring dietitian, Jessica Beristianos, volunteered to just help at the camp three years ago. 

"I was so out of the loop I didn't even know what to wear. I remember I showed up in exercise gear," she said with a laugh. 

Larson's wife, Katy Erhardt, who is also a fire captain had been trying to recruit Beristianos for years. It turns out it wasn't talking but doing that turned the tide.  

"It was so cool. I was doing things I never thought I could be doing. I had never started a chainsaw," said Beristianos, "I really don't think I would have found it had I not seen that and seen how just how powerful it all was."

By the time camp was over she was asking one question, "What is the next step? What do I need to do?" 

Beristianos is now a probationary firefighter at the North County Fire Authority in Daly City. 

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"They've had women firefighters there for the past 35 years. We currently have above ten percent in our department it’s been a very great experience," she explained.  

While this camp is all about pulling hoses, using fire extinguishers, learning C.P.R., and operating chainsaws, it’s also about change. 

"I think it's definitely changing the conversation," said Larson. While she didn't come in to make waves she now believes some waves are good waves. 

While she didn't come in to make waves, she now believes some waves are good waves. It's a reminder that differences are strengths. 

"We show up as a team with three people on a fire engine who are all looking at the same problem and trying to find a solution," explained Larson, "and the perspective that I bring based on my life experience, gender, height, and athletic experience is different from what my firefighter brings and what my engineer brings." 

The camp provides an incredible sense of belonging for the career firefighters, said Larson. And serves as a reminder that even if you are the only one in the room, you aren't alone.