For firefighters to climb the career ladder, they must be able to handle physical, mental, and emotional obstacles in their path. Plus, they need the know-how, confidence, and resolve to do it again the next day. Girls Camp an LAFD youth program, strives to develop these skill sets in a supportive environment for an ambitious, yet typically under-recruited group of firefighting hopefuls: teen girls.
Battalion Chief Kady Kepner, who runs Girls Camp and LAFD recruitment, and Captain Jennifer Wilcox, Girls Camp co-founder and VP of LA Women in the Fire Service recognize that less than 100 of 3,400 LAFD firefighters are women. Chief Kepner and Captain Wilcox are dedicated to improving LAFD’s outreach to potential candidates.
About Girls Camp
The idea for Girls Camp was sparked by Camp Blaze, a seven-day leadership event in Seattle for women 16-19 years old, hoping to pursue a career in firefighting. When now-retired LAFD Battalion Chief Alicia Welch brought her experience with Camp Blaze back to L.A. in 2012, Captain Wilcox and Captain Monica Hall stepped up to create something similar in Los Angeles.
Girls Camp launched in 2016 and is now held twice a year at locations around the city. It is two-day day camp for teens 14-18 years old. In each session, the selected participants team with a volunteer staff of firefighters to learn what it takes to succeed. “I like to integrate girls and women from other departments,” says Captain Wilcox, who works with recruitment and logistics. Many young women are not aware that firefighting is a feasible career for them. “If girls can see it then they have the visibility to change their mindset for their future.” The first Girls Camp was staffed by female firefighters from across the U.S. Much of the volunteer support was from women who were part of Camp Blaze.
Chief Kepner breaks down the two-day schedule. “We train these young women in first aid and CPR as well as physical fitness to help them gain confidence,” she says. “Day one is an introduction and by day two they are using the tools and equipment.” With support and guidance from their mentors and their peers, the teens emerge from the program with a positive outlook and, for many, a renewed determination to pursue this career.
Both Chief Kepner and Captain Wilcox have witnessed the increase in courage and confidence during program sessions, particularly with teens who may have a fear of heights. One big highlight is seeing “tears of fear turn into tears of happiness,” Captain Wilcox says. “In two days they can do things that they never imagined.” Another highlight is watching the teens become empowered and energized about continuing on this career path.
Each year, one Girls Camp teen is honored with an Outstanding Achievement Award named after Alicia Welch in “recognition of determination and inspiration consistent with traditions of the LAFD.”
Chief Kepner says “I liked the idea of bringing awareness to young girls as they grow older.” She says Girls Camp is designed for the teens to be able to participate in other LAFD youth programs if they choose to continue. Since the summer of 2016 LAFD has provided this opportunity to 194 participants.
Chief Kepner emphasizes this program also depends on community support. “Girls Camp is made possible with strong partnerships with City Council Member Nury Martinez for program fundraising and promotion, the LADWP and Parks & Recreation for food and hydration, and support from The Fire Foundation, and UFLAC – United Firefighters of Los Angeles.”
The most recent Girls Camp was held the weekend of April 7-8, 2018.
To learn more and to apply, visit www.joinLAFD.org.
By Madeline Wright
Read more about Our LAFD Heroes
LAFD Battalion Chief Kady Kepner grew up in the San Fernando Valley and wanted to pursue a career as a firefighter. She saw her own self-confidence rise as she went through the LAFD Explorer Youth Program when she was 15. “That program had a huge impact on clarifying my goals and career focus to become an LAFD firefighter,” she says. Kady earned a fire-focused bachelors degree and was dedicated to maintaining her skills through a 5-year hiring freeze, eventually getting hired in 2000. She successfully promoted throughout her career, eventually becoming a Battalion Chief. To this day she maintains friendships with three other explorers, now working in the LAFD.
She describes her experience recruiting and launching Girls Camp sessions as both “stressful and exciting.” She adds, “Girls Camp is important for me because it’s a way for me to provide something to our youth that brings me full circle.”
By Madeline Wright
Jennifer is from the San Fernando Valley and from a family dedicated to civil service. With many of her family members in the military, she says “I never thought about joining the fire department” until after she decided to become a paramedic. She then enrolled in a private fire academy to prepare for this career, with her top choice being hired to work in the city of L.A. Jennifer now oversees logistics for all Girls Camp sessions, ensuring firefighter volunteer staff is available each day and equipment is ready for the teens to use.
The top lessons provided from Girls Camp are apparent. ”It teaches them leadership skills, that anything is an option, and know not to pigeonhole themselves.” She adds, “They also gain access to mentoring, resources, and recruitment. It would be a great thing to see more women in the department. I would love to see one of these empowered women ride on the engine next to me.”
Chief Kepner and Captain Wilcox encourage all applicants at least 18 years of age, especially women, to apply for LAFD career opportunities. Applications with LAFD are accepted online starting March 5, 2018 – June 29, 2018. For more info and to apply visit: www.joinLAFD.org
By Madeline Wright