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Baltimore Fire Department's Camp Spark kindles interest in fire service careers for girls

Baltimore Fire Department launched Camp Spark August 4-5 for young women to learn more about potential careers in fire service. (Hallie Miller / Baltimore Sun)

At 13, Kaliah Rumber can envision herself as a paramedic with a fire department some day.

“I like the feeling of knowing I can help somebody,” the rising eighth-grader at the Mount Royal School said. She added that while it’s stressful and entails “a lot of work,” she feels inspired by the example set by other women in the fire service.

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Rumber, along with dozens of other girls between the ages of 12 and 16, attended Camp Spark, a fire service empowerment camp hosted by the Baltimore Fire Department over the weekend. The two-day free course exposed young women to fire training, EMS simulations and team-building exercises designed to give them a taste of the many career opportunities available in the field.

Though similar fire service camps for women exist throughout the country, this was the program’s first year in Baltimore, said Blair Skinner, spokeswoman for the Fire Department. She said nearly 40 department members “jumped on board” to volunteer at the camp.

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Among the volunteers was Mya McConnell, the department’s first female battalion chief. Her father volunteered in the fire service and encouraged her to get involved. Without him, she never would have known that she could have a future in a male-dominated field, she said.

A new audit of the Baltimore fire department says the department fell short of meeting its goals for installing smoke alarms. 

“I don’t think all girls realize that this is a career option for them,” McConnell said. “We want them to know that they’re strong enough and they’re smart enough and it’s something that they can do.”

In a series of activities, participants tried on firefighting gear, knocked down targets with charged hose lines, put up ladders, learned CPR and first-aid basics, and practiced lifting patients off stretchers, among other exercises. Upon the successful completion of tasks, they gave each other high fives and fist bumps.

Though Rumber describes herself as shy, she said she enjoyed the opportunity to meet other girls her age with similar interests.

“It’s very empowering to see this many women out here doing this work,” she said. “You wouldn’t think that you would see women lifting up heavy people and stretchers and all of that.”

As of 2016, women made up only 4.1 percent of all career firefighters, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Blacks and people of Hispanic origin totaled a combined 16.9 percent.

Women comprise nearly 20 percent of the city Fire Department, Skinner said. But only about 3 percent of them are assigned to roles dealing with fighting fires.

Less than a year from the Democratic primary election, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has invested much of her image as Baltimore's top prosecutor in youth and community engagement. She hopes her office's programs break down citizens' distrust of law enforcement — and help keep young people on the right track in a city where crime continues to spike.

“We want to make sure we are being as diverse as we can be,” Skinner said. “We have women immersed throughout this agency and [we want] young girls to see that.”

Though women and non-whites have made progress in diversifying the profession, city fire Lt. Meaghan Ryan said fire service recruitment has room to improve.

“I feel like we should be a lot further along than we are now,” she said. “We need to make more girls know that they can do this and not take ‘can’t’ or ‘no’ as an answer.”

Cameron Fritsch, 14, had previously attended a similar program, and said that experience fueled her interest in Camp Spark.

She said she felt most excited about the prospect of learning how to open a door with an ax.

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“Women have power, and they can do anything that they put their mind to,” the Eastern Technical High School student said. “We need more role models teaching kids who are growing up that they can do whatever they want, be who they want.”

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