CONCORD, N.H. — Don’t call them firemen.
Seventeen young women have given up a week of their midsummer break to see if they can take the heat that comes with working as a firefighter.
Nashua Fire Rescue Lt. Jess Wyman runs Camp Fully Involved. It provides hands-on experiences for young women interested in pursuing a career in the fire service, or for some, a few days of physical and mental challenge touched with excitement and adventure.
The camp, now in its 11th year, is held each summer at the New Hampshire Fire Academy in Concord. Instructors are current or former firefighters who bring their experiences and unique skills to the program for young women ages 14-20.
When the camp began, it was one of only three in the country.
“Now they’re starting to pop up all over the place because they’re finding that this is making a big impact on recruitment and retention of women in the fire service,” Wyman said.
This year’s collection of cadets is made up of girls and women from all over the region.
“We have 17 kids this year from all over the place, including two from Canada,” Wyman said.
The six-day live-in program started last July 16 and ended with a graduation ceremony. The days were full of experiences such as cutting open vehicles in mock crashes and cutting into structures set up to mimic smoke-filled buildings.
Staff photo by Don Himsel Justine Shackleton of Toronto, Canada, was once a cadet. She returned this year as a volunteer to help Nashua Fire Rescue Lt. Jess Wyman run the camp. “It’s very rewarding for me to see the girls transform over the week; witness them experience the incredible thing that I did,” she said. “I went through that same transformation.”
Every day brings its own set of new experiences using the tools of the firefighting trade.
“Each day builds on the day before,” Wyman said.
As they work through their physical challenges, “They have to develop that trust and that bond with each other,” she said. “A lot of these kids are doing things outside of their wheelhouse; things that are very scary for them. Together, they’ve learned they can overcome these fears.”
The fears were evident for one Maine cadet on Wednesday. Decked out in a helmet, harness and carabiners, and using a device called a descender to control friction on a rope, she climbed over a railing on the third floor of the training facility’s burn house. Her task was to become, for that moment, a rescuer and to lower herself down the wall, pull another cadet from a second-floor window and get both of them safely to the ground.
Her confidence wavered a bit, though, once she was on the other side of the railing.
“Please don’t let me fall,” she said to Jim Waller, a Nashua Fire Rescue firefighter and volunteer instructor as he helped her get organized with her gear. Hanging over the side, she strained, and was at first hesitant, but dutifully listened and learned exactly how to handle the gear, rope and her own body to stay safe.
Behind Waller, Hudson cadet Olivia Horstkotte had her “on belay” – controlled by another rope firmly attached to her for safety.
“You got me, girl?” she asked Horstkotte.
Slowly, but with more confidence, she made her way down the vertical wall and accomplished her mock rescue.
Waiting for her own turn to go over the side, Horstkotte, 17, said, “My mom just became a firefighter,” and the incoming Alvirne High School senior has made it a goal to “one-up her.”
Horstkotte participated in Alvirne’s U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer Training School for three years.
“I”m trying to show her up, but not as a firefighter,” Horstkotte said, referring to the challenges she faced. “Yeah, I can do that, too, Mom. Watch me.”
Horstkotte isn’t sold on being a firefighter quite yet, however.
“Questionable. We’ll see,” she said.
But the camp experience was fulfilling.
“I’m giving it a go,” she said. “I’m open-minded toward a lot of things. I figured I’d try it.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into it, I know that. It’s a lot like ROTC.”
That similarity was drawn by the regimental feel to some aspects of the camp. The participants are organized into “sticks” of about five cadets. Homemade flags are carried by one member of each stick as they gather together in a deliberate, though casual, formation to walk to each training session.
“It’s really exciting to watch their transformation and watch them bond together in the groups they’re in and as a whole,” Wyman said.
Some of the challenges offer unique experiences for the participants.
At the rope rescue exercise, for example, Horstkotte said, “I’ve never done anything like that.” She has had some EMS training, but admitted, “That’s nothing like this.”
The program begins almost immediately with real-world emergency response training.
“Once we give them some basic, requisite skills we start to get them into live fire,” Wyman said. The squads use the facility’s concrete and steel burn house, which allows for deliberate fires to be controlled and extinguished for study of fire behavior and practicing extinguishing techniques.
Throughout the week, the cadets also learn how to put out vehicle fires, extricate crash victims and deploy wildfire shelters, and are even taught functional fitness routines.
On Wednesday, cadets not only practiced rappelling and rope work, but also learned about wildfire fighting. After a classroom presentation, they donned bright yellow wildfire shirts, helmets, gloves and a practice wildfire shelter stored in a belt pouch. They gathered on grass near woods to practice speedily deploying their safety shelters under the guidance of Forest Rangers Bryan Nowell and Douglas Miner.
Auto extrication skills were planned for Thursday morning, taught by T.J. Chacos, also from Nashua Fire Rescue. They would also be taught how to properly access a fire truck’s tools and use them to cut into a building’s roof, set extension ladders and search for fire victims.
“Friday takes everything they’ve learned all week and we do a big combined operation,” Wyman said.
That means gaining entry into a mock building fire, bringing in firehoses, searching for any possible victims and putting out the fire.
After a classroom session Wednesday, Justine Shackleton, who came to New Hampshire as a volunteer from Toronto, led the cadets to their next training assignment. She is a former cadet, and is now a firefighter looking for full-time work. She said the staff members at the camp have been “incredible mentors to me.”
“It’s very rewarding for me to see the girls transform over the week; witness them experience the incredible thing that I did,” she said. “I went through that same transformation.”
Some think that camps such as CFI make a difference in raising the number of female applicants to departments around the country.
“The numbers are really starting to come up,” Wyman said. “We participated in an elite study with the Department of Labor last year. They picked five sites in the country between police, fire and EMS, and they selected us to look at recruitment and retention. It was pretty exciting to be part of that.
“It’s motivating for us to see that this is the future of the fire service. They’re passionate and they’re excited about it.”
“It’s about letting them know that they can do it, that they can do what they want to do,” said Doug Giles, a volunteer instructor and former firefighter who had decades of fire service in Concord. “It’s an outlook they can carry the rest of their life.”
Shackleton is serious about her budding fire service career. But regardless of where it may take her, she said, “It’s super-cliche, but you really are a changed person coming out of the other end of it.”
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.nashuatelegraph.com