There aren’t many women firefighters across the country or in the Arlington County Fire Department.
But one female firefighter, Marcia “Tia” Reed, is trying to change that by getting more girls interested in the emergency-rescue field. She helps operate an annual girls-only summer camp that introduces teens to the male-dominated career of firefighting.
“Women don’t dream about coming to this field. They have no concept they can do this job,” said Reed, who has worked for 10 years as a firefighter in Arlington. “We wanted to bring more women into our department. Showing them in our camp what it’s about helps us — hopefully — do that.”
The Arlington County Fire Department’s summer camp, called “Camp Heat,” runs four days and offers girls free room and board, as well as meals. This year, the camp runs Thursday to Sunday.
About two dozen girls, ranging in age from 15 to 18, are selected from across the country based on a written essay. Girls who live in Arlington are usually given first preference, Reed said. The county foots the annual bill of about $30,000 for the camp.
Emma Jacobson, a 15-year-old who will be a sophomore at Arlington’s Yorktown High School in the fall, said she heard about the camp in elementary school and was eager to apply when she became old enough. She said she was “ecstatic” when she got her acceptance letter.
“It will allow me to get a taste of what this career is really like,” she said.
Emma said she thinks she will get to “experience things from a firefighter’s point of view, instead of learning about them from a classroom or a book.”
Since it started in 2013, the camp has had nearly 80 graduates — some of whom have gone into, or are strongly considering, careers as firefighters. One summer camp graduate now works as a firefighter in Pennsylvania and others from Northern Virginia are working to become paramedics or EMTs, according to camp organizers.
Twenty-nine of about 330 firefighters in Arlington’s fire department are women. Nationally, there are an estimated 1.1 million firefighters, although only about 7 percent are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
At Camp Heat in Arlington, the girls stay and train at the Marymount University campus. They learn the basics of firefighting, including fire safety, how to properly use a fire extinguisher, controlling and putting out a fire, plus CPR and first-aid skills. The girls also are taught about the nation’s history of women in firefighting.
In addition to spending time at a firehouse, the teens undergo a “combat challenge,” where they act out mock rescue situations from homes, cars and other scenarios with fire gear.
Emma said she has dreamed of pursuing a career as a firefighter because she thinks she would enjoy the adrenaline rush. She said she also wants to help people. While slightly nervous about some of the physical training at the camp, Emma said she also expects it will teach her discipline, confidence and “how to push myself.”
The camp includes mentors who provide motivation and guide the participants as they search for careers, even if it is not in firefighting.
Reed said she went into the field of emergency services thinking she wanted to be a paramedic. She tried firefighting, and now is a paramedic and a firefighter.
She said when she was training, she often felt overlooked, but continued to work hard.
“Just being a female, you’re challenged a bit more,” Reed said. “No one gives you a handout. You have to prove yourself even more because you’re a woman.”
Priyanka Bose, 17, an Arlington resident who will be a senior at Yorktown High, went to Camp Heat last summer and said it encouraged her to take an EMS course at a career center. This year, she’s serving as a mentor to campers.
She said the camp made her “absolutely sure” that she wants to be an emergency responder.
“It opens doors for girls, which is so necessary today because now, more and more females are entering male-dominated workplaces,” Priyanka said. “Even the girls who decided not to pursue careers in the field left with a much higher self-esteem and the belief that they can do anything they choose.”