Girls Fire Camp: Firefighting is no longer just for boys

ARLINGTON, Va. – Anne Slabinski or Marcia Reed never dreamed they would grow up to become firefighters.

Yet after more than 15 years collectively in the Arlington County Fire Department, the two feel they have found their callings.

“I didn’t ever think that I couldn’t do it because I was female,” Slabinski says.

It was the same for Reed.

“The fire department is so male-dominated and most women see it that way until you expose them to something different,” she says.

“The world has evolved so much. Women don’t just belong in the kitchen, we belong everywhere.”

The Arlington fire department hopes to recruit more young women through its second annual Girl’s Fire Camp, a free overnight camp tailored for students 13 to 16 years old. Participants will run drills, learn basic skills and get a brief taste of the firefighter’s life.

“It helps motivate or move women towards this field when they see other women do it,” Reed says.

“When other women see me out of uniform and dressing like a young lady, they can understand that you don’t have to look like a man to do the job, act like a man to do the job. You can still be you and perform your duties as a firefighter.”

If they pass the selective application process, which is gender neutral, female recruits enter a tight-knit world where women support each other because there are so few of them. In Arlington, about 9 percent, or 25 of the 329, uniformed firefighters are women, says Capt. Brandon Jones. Nationally, only 6 percent are female, ARL Now reports.

And even though they might not work side by side, many socialize outside the fire stations or participate in bonding activities, like running half-marathons.

“We support one another, we help one another and we can relate to one another as a group of women,” Reed says. “We come in various shapes, sizes and age groups.”

Reed joined the department as a paramedic more than five years ago at the behest of her mother, who saw EMS job openings and thought her daughter might be interested. Despite being a single mother of two girls at the time, Reed decided to take the plunge.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a firefighter,” she says, “but I always wanted to help others.”

Now, Reed spends about 11 nights a month at the fire station while her husband helps take care of her daughters. Neither has expressed interest in following her mother’s career path, but both girls are “excited” about Reed’s profession and have inquired about fire camp.

“Would I send my daughters? Absolutely,” Reed says.

Slabinski also landed in firefighting somewhat accidentally. The 10-year veteran of the Arlington fire department left behind a “rougher” career as a welder after sustaining serious burns. She didn’t want others to suffer from similar painful injuries, so she has dedicated her life to aiding fire victims.

What she found during the application process surprised her: A relatively level playing field in which recruits are judged by their dedication not their gender.

“You have to show that you’re willing to work,” Slabinski says. “If you’re willing to work hard and you stick with it, then you get a lot more support that way.”

Video: Slabinski demonstrates the fire pole

Being a woman can sometimes prove an advantage depending on the situation. Reed recalls responding to an emergency call from a woman experiencing massive vaginal bleeding. When the firefighters arrived at the scene, the woman did not feel comfortable letting the men inside because she was alone and naked.

“She felt … relief because she didn’t want these males to see her this way,” Reed says. “I was able to enter the apartment, help her get a little more comfortable, a little more acclimated, get a little cleaned up before she allowed the others to come in.”

Both Reed and Slabinski have handled sensitive cases in which a victim’s religious beliefs prevented her from being touched by men other than a relative.

Cases like these reflect the need for emergency responders to mirror the demographics of the communities they serve, Jones says. This includes recruiting more minorities, women and people who speak several languages.

Above all, the fire department is just looking for men and women who want to help others.

“It takes a good, strong person to this job,” Jones says.

Students interested in applying for the Girls Fire Camp can apply online here. Applications are due May 17, and the camp runs July 12 through 14.

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