Firefighter Aaron Kiraly shows Girls on Fire participants, from left: Mercedes Higgins of Chippewa Falls, Megan Funk of Owen, and Kayla Dubiel of Cadott, how to hold a fire hose and move together with it at the CVTC Emergency Services Education Center campus.
EAU CLAIRE – Mercedes Higgins felt good about herself at the top of a 30-foot pole.
The eighth grader from Chippewa Falls climbed the pole wearing a harness and secured by ropes held by her peers at the Girls on Fire Camp at Chippewa Valley Technical College this past week. The next step was a big one: stepping off the pole and being gently lowered to the ground.
“Getting up there is like the goal you set for yourself,” Higgins said. “If you make it, you really feel good about yourself. It’s a confidence-builder.”
“I kind of got used to it once I was up there,” said Angelia Mouth, a Chippewa Falls eighth grader.
“That was really fun,” said Kayla Dubiel, who just completed her sophomore year at Cadott and recently moved to Fall Creek with her family. “I really liked it and I was able to help other girls who were scared and give them confidence.”
Braving the ropes course was among the many character-building activities in the camp designed to expose girls from junior high through high school age to emergency medical services and firefighting careers. The girls went on to engage in many hands-on activities directly related to the careers, such as emergency medical procedures, holding a charged fire hose with the help of others, connecting a hose to a hydrant, safely climbing a ladder and through a window into a smoky room, putting out a fire with an extinguisher, and many other skills firefighters use every day.
Grace Palacios, a junior at Menomonie High School, admitted she wasn’t so relaxed on that pole. “I was terrified,” she said. “But I did it. I learned that if I focus I can do anything, and I’m learning to trust others.”
And that is exactly the kind of lesson camp director and career firefighter Marcy Bruflat hopes the girls take away from the camp, whether they pursue firefighting and EMS careers or not.
“The number one goal is to create confidence in young women, to have them do something that women don’t usually do,” Bruflat said.
Nationally, women make up only about four percent of professional firefighters, and Bruflat feels many young women don’t realize they are capable of doing the work. She wants the campers to learn their own capabilities, and to build teamwork and leadership skills.
“All of our activities are tied to leadership in some way,” Bruflat said. “And they work together as part of crews. We want them to get more confident in themselves, but to also focus on ‘us.’ “
Bruflat says it would be an “added bonus” if the camp led some of the girls to enroll in CVTC’s FireMedic program and pursue careers in the field. It’s at least getting some girls to think about it, if they haven’t already.
“I really want to be a firefighter,” said Palacios, adding she developed the interest about two years ago. “Nobody in my family has ever done it, so I want to do it.”
Some girls signed up for the camp because of family interest, like a parent in emergency services work. Others came already interested in the medical field and looking forward to the EMS activities.
“My foster dad, Jeff, is an EMT and he got me interested in it,” said Higgins. Both of Mouth’s parents have firefighting experience and her mother is currently with the Chippewa Fire District.
Overall, the girls find the camp, now in its second year, loads of fun, and a chance to build strong bonds with new friends while learning new skills. On the first full day they were loading one another into ambulances, taking blood pressure and pulse, performing CPR and treating an injured patient in the form of an interactive patient simulator. By mid-week they were bracing one another as they held a spraying high pressure fire hose, approaching a fuel fire with an extinguisher while wearing full firefighter gear, and searching a room blindfolded in a team effort to rescue an infant simulator.
Most of the girls from last year’s camp returned this year for a follow-up camp called Girls on Fire Rekindle, sponsored by the Altoona Fire Department and a local Explorers group.
“Some of the parents called me last year and said their girls talked about the camp constantly for two weeks afterwards. When they’re talking about it, you know you’ve met your goals,” Bruflat said.
“Getting up there is like the goal you set for yoursel. If you make it, you really feel good about yourself. It’s a confidence-builder.” — Mercedes Higgins Chippewa Falls