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Summer Heat program gives girls a glimpse of firefighting career

By: lisa walton
April 26, 2014 Updated: April 26, 2014 at 8:48 pm
Caption +
The girls of the Red Rovers group learn how to search for a fire victim while wearing some of the necessary gear during one of the training sessions at Summer Heat in this 2010 file photo. (The Gazette, Bryan Oller)

Organizers of Summer Heat, the Colorado Springs Fire Department's annual, weeklong summer camp for teenage girls, are crossing their fingers this year.

After the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires put the past two camps on hold, organizers are hoping the community hasn't forgotten about the program, which runs in July and offers girls age 15-19 the opportunity to learn about firefighting.

Despite the fact that the camp is for girls, the camp's goal is not to recruit more women, said Rebekah Wisham, Summer Heat president and Colorado Springs firefighter.

"That would be like an added bonus. But it's not the expectation," she said. "It's more about building self-esteem and teamwork and letting them know they can do more than they thought they could. It's really more empowering than anything."

Because firefighting is a male-dominated career, most girls don't even consider it, said Wisham, who's been active with the program since she joined the department almost a decade ago.

"Most of these kids have never in their life thought about putting on bunker gear and saving a baby from a fire," she said.

They don't see women doing it, said Colorado Springs firefighter Alex DelGaudio, who founded the program in 2002 after being inspired by a similar program in Washington state.

"At that time, I was frustrated that we weren't seeing a large number of women applicants in the fire service," she said.

"It became obvious pretty quickly that if women decide to pursue this, it's kind of just the icing on the cake."

Several girls who have attended the camp have gone on to pursue a career in fire service, including Ashley Whitworth, who works for the Colorado Springs Fire Department's wildfire mitigation office as a fuels technician.

Whitworth participated in the program in 2004, when she was 14.

She's worked in the Colorado Springs Fire Department's wildfire mitigation office as a lead fuels technician since 2011 and is a certified wildland firefighter who fought the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires.

As a fuels technician, her primary job is to assess homes in the wildfire urban interface areas and provide free consultations for homeowners who want to make their homes more defensible against wildland fires.

It's something she's wanted to do since Christina Randall, the fire department's wildfire mitigation administrator, gave a presentation on wildfire mitigation during the 2004 Summer Heat camp.

One of the most challenging things Whitworth remembers doing during the camp was using a breathing apparatus to crawl through a dark smoky building during one of the exercises.

"There were times when I just really wanted to stand up and get out, but I told myself, 'Hey you can do this,'" she said.

Whitworth volunteered with the program for five years after she graduated and plans to help this summer.

Organizers have rolled out a new website and are accepting applications to fill 24 slots for their 10th annual camp.

This year's camp will include a self-defense class taught by Colorado Springs police, a rapelling activity off the fire tower at the department headquarters on Printers Parkway and several realistic firefighting exercises, including vehicle extrication and an aerial ladder climb. The girls will also learn search and rescue techniques, get full bunker gear and have the opportunity to become CPR-certified. Their week will culminate in fighting a live, controlled fire.

Giving them the opportunity to try - and succeed - at a male-dominated job builds their confidence, shows them what they're capable of, and encourages them to consider other possibilities they may not have considered, Wisham said.

The camp is physically challenging and is designed to "bump them up" against their limitations and fears, DelGaudio said.

The program also gives female firefighters, which make up 5.8 percent of the department's 422 firefighters, an opportunity to step into the role of a mentor.

It also promotes camaraderie among female firefighters.

"We really see a need to keep in touch with and be close with other females in such a male-dominated environment," Wisham said. "We love it not only for the girls, but for us as well."

DelGaudio said that women in the department can often feel isolated from each other because they primarily work with men.

"What's nice is this year, there are going to be two women working at camp who are new to the department. They rarely get the opportunity to be with veteran (female) firefighters," DelGaudio said.

The kind of mentorship the camp provides is something she didn't have access to when she decided to become a firefighter more than 20 years ago.

"I'm somebody who really believes in equity and opportunity," said DelGaudio, who became a firefighter to overcome her challenges and limitations. "The fire service seemed like a really great way to carve a path."

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