Two female high school students who recently returned from a teen firefighter camp say the program was not only physically challenging, but empowering, educational and life-changing.
Camp Ignite is a youth firefighter mentorship program for Grade 11 and 12 girls. Chilliwack’s Sydney Owens, 17, and Larissa Goudzwaard, 18, were two of 23 girls from throughout B.C. who attended the four-day camp Aug. 8 to Aug. 11 at several sites around the Metro Vancouver area.
“Camp Ignite is a mentorship program. It’s about empowering young women to look beyond their boundaries,” says Chilliwack fire prevention officer Lieut. Lisa Axelson, who helped out with the camp.
The girls learned the basics of firefighting, like how to put on turnout gear, handle various hoses, use masks and oxygen tanks, operate the Jaws of Life, and do CPR.
But they were also taught other skills like rope-tying, self defence, and rappelling down the side of a building, plus they experienced mock scenarios such as HAZMAT situations, rope rescues and small-confinement rescues.
Both Owens and Goudzwaard recall one drill where they were decked out in full turnout gear, complete with breathing apparatus, and had to crawl on their hands and knees through a hot, smoky building in teams of four to rescue a “casualty.”
“You can’t see that well, you can’t hear that well, so you really have to communicate,” says Owens, who’s going into Grade 12 at G.W. Graham.
They used teamwork, communication and “a lot of trust” in those situations, adds Goudzwaard, a Timothy Christian graduate.
The firefighting skills the two learned were not just physical.
During classroom sessions, they “got a smattering of some of what the fire service offers,” says Axelson, such as fire prevention, legalities with inspections, education components, and legislative components.
There was even a mental health talk about firefighters who have been through traumatic experiences.
“Camp was pretty life-changing. It was an experience like no other,” says Owens.
She has no family connection to firefighting, but Goudzwaard does. Her father was a firefighter at the Popkum hall for 20 years and he was also the fire chief.
“I grew up in a fire hall,” says Goudzwaard. “Every time I’d see a firefighter, I’d want to try it, and this was an opportunity to live it.”
Lieut. Jenn Dawkins of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service started Camp Ignite in 2011. It is organized and run entirely by women, including 35 career and paid-on-call firefighters.
The career firefighters speaking at camp were open and honest about the business.
“They gave them an honest look at how hard it is to get hired,” says Axelson.
Although women make up a very small percentage of firefighters across Canada, in Chilliwack the numbers are higher than average. Nationwide, only four per cent of firefighters are women, but here that number is almost double — out of the Chilliwack Fire Department’s 157 firefighters, 12 are women.
Axelson credits that higher-than-normal number to fire Chief Ian Josephson.
“He wants women in the fire service. He promotes it, he supports us,” she says, adding that in other fire departments there’s discrimination in the hiring of women as firefighters.
“How do you change that mentality? I think the only way we’re going to change that is firemen in the fire service who have daughters, and their daughters are moving on to be firefighters. Those are the people that will change the culture,” says Axelson.
She believes it’s all in how we raise our children.
“I raise my son to believe ‘anything a girl can do, a boy can do better,’ and I raise my daughter to believe ‘anything a boy can do, a girl can do better.’ Whatever you choose as a vocation, it’s irrelevant what your sex is. Just do the best you can and that’s what’s going to change the culture.”
Part of the application process to attend Camp Ignite was for the students to write an essay about who empowers them and who lights that fire for them.
The determining factor for getting chosen was the students’ essays.
The two were both sponsored to go to Camp Ignite, Owens by the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. and Goudzwaard by the Chilliwack Fire Department. It cost $500 for each camper to attend.
“I went there to prove to myself that I could do something like this, something challenging that you would never think you could do,” says Owens. “Why I thought it was amazing was because, in the end, it showed all the girls there that you could do anything you wanted to do. If you believed in yourself, you could do it.”
“There’s an awful lot of women firefighters who can kick ass,” says Axelson.