Eau Claire, WI –Sunshine Southworth would get excited about seeing the firefighters gather next door at the Chippewa Fire District station in the town of Lafayette. She used to watch them train with their fire hoses out behind the station.
“My sister and I would go out and jump around and yell ‘spray us!’” said the 7th grader at Chippewa Falls Middle School.
On Tuesday, Southworth got a chance to be on the other end of the fire hose. As one of 24 participants in the five-day Girls on Fire camp at Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC), she learned not only to hold a fire hose with the help of others, but also to connect a hose to a hydrant, safely climb a ladder and through a window into a smoky room, put out a fire with an extinguisher, and many other skills firefighters use every day.
She and the other campers also learned about emergency medical procedures, using the high-tech equipment in CVTC’s patient simulation laboratories.
The camp, which wraps up today, is part of an effort to build confidence in the girls and expose them to a profession in which women are underrepresented. Nationally, only about four percent of firefighters are women.
“We want to encourage girls to consider firefighting and emergency medical services,” said Marcy Bruflat, fire services instructor at CVTC and the camp’s director. “Only four percent of the profession is made up of women. We’d like to expose the girls to the occupations and build their confidence in a traditionally male-dominated occupation. I want them to understand that this can be an option for them.”
The girls stayed each night in the dorms at UW-Eau Claire, and faced the challenge of the university’s ropes course on Monday morning. Bruflat says the camp wasn’t just about fighting fires and emergency medical work. Building confidence and a sense of teamwork in young girls was a big part of the program.
“The occupation has always required brains and brawn. It takes a unique individual,” Bruflat said. “we want them to see that they can do it.”
Among the ropes course exercises was one in which the girls climbed a telephone pole 30-feet tall, while wearing a safety harness connected to ropes anchored by two teams of fellow campers and instructors. They were encouraged to stand on the very top of the pole, then jump off and be lowered, swinging in the air, by their teammates.
“The fire service is all about teambuilding,” Bruflat said. “We started with teambuilding and gave them some leadership opportunities.”
Anna Bischel of New Auburn said the best part of the ropes course was “being scared and overcoming it.”
Like most girls, she did not quite manage to stand on the end of the pole, but sat on it, then jumped.
“I got up really fast and stayed up, but it took me a really long time to jump,” Bischel said.
“I liked the zip line the best,” Southworth said of the ropes course. “It was my first time zip lining.”
Some of the participants developed an interest in the camp through family members connected to the fire and EMS services, like Bischel, whose father is fire chief in New Auburn, and Redgy Bleskacek, whose father is chief in Bloomer.
“My mom works for the fire department (in Lafayette) and she’s on the dive team now,” said Southworth of her mother, Michelle Fischer.
McKenna Blum of Chippewa Falls said she’s been interested in police and firefighting work. “This is a way to help people,” she said, adding that she liked the technology used in the EMS field.
Instructional staff for the camp came from CVTC, and from full-time and volunteer fire and EMS services around the area, including the Chippewa Fire District. Among them were women like Lisa Schuetz of the Altoona Fire Department, and Katie Hakes, a Chippewa Fire District firefighter.
"You have to be strong. You're going into places where nobody wants to go and you need to be able to get people out when they're screaming your name,” Hakes said about the profession. “A lot of women I guess probably don't want to do that.”
The first step in getting them to want to do it is to get them to understand that they can do it.
“There are not a lot of women in the fire service,” Bruflat said. “I thought it would be great to have a camp to give them some exposure to it and to show them what they can do.”
This was the first year for the Girls on Fire camp. Bruflat hopes to make it an annual event.
“We had overwhelming interest. We had 24 slots and 36 applicants,” Bruflat said.
Other Chippewa County girls taking part in the camp were Amanda Wright of Stanley, Rebecca Bischel of New Auburn, and Stanley-Boyd High School student Brianna Dahl.
Chippewa Valley Technical College delivers superior, progressive technical education which improves the lives of students, meets the workforce needs of the region, and strengthens the larger community. Campuses are located in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Neillsville and River Falls. CVTC serves an 11-county area in west central Wisconsin. CVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and is one of 16 WTCS colleges located throughout the state.