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Oakland Fire Camp Targets Women, Non-Binary Recruits

OAKLAND — Like many professions today, the fire service is in dire need of new recruits, and many departments believe that the best way to solve the staff shortage is not to focus solely on men.

At a firefighting skills camp in Oakland, 20 women learned that you don’t really know what you can do until you try.

“It’s my first time doing something like this and I absolutely love it,” Simone Nettles said as she cut through a simulated plywood roof. Nettles discovered she was a surgeon with a chainsaw, although she had never picked up one.

“You are so good!” said her female instructor. “That’s great work! You’re a born truck driver, young lady!”

Raised by a single mother and now a mother herself, Simone said she is looking for a new career, something that helps people in times of crisis.

“As an only child, I want to be part of a team, definitely part of the team,” Nettles said. “But as a woman, I never thought I couldn’t do it. In fact, I thought maybe I had more insight.”

Held at Oakland’s fire training facility, the camp was designed to give women and non-binary individuals a chance to see what it’s like to be a working firefighter.

Oakland Fire Camp
A skills camp in Oakland focused on attracting women and non-binary people to careers in firefighting

KPIX

From climbing a six-story, fully-equipped building to operating a fire hose while going to a burning building to wielding a 24-foot ladder all alone, the women were trying to decide if this was a career for them.

“The fire service has been dominated by men for the longest time,” said Oakland fire chief Reginald Freeman. “There were no equal opportunities for women to have a real share and interest in our profession and this camp is breaking those barriers.”

Lieutenant Julie DeJalais has been with SF Fire for 20 years. She remembered how important it was to see other women working in the fire service.

“Representation is important,” she said. “I see a woman, I think, she’s a firefighter? Oh, I can be a firefighter… If she can do it, so can I.”

Sometimes the public also needs persuasion. Captain Erika Enslin, with Sacramento Fire, remembered the time someone came into her station and asked to speak to the captain.

“I’m like, ‘Yeah, how can I help you?’” she recalled. “And they looked past me at my crew sitting at the table and said, ‘Yeah, I’m looking for the captain.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, can I help you?’ And he says, ‘No, I need to speak to the captain!’ And I’m like, ‘so what can I help you with, sir?’”

Oakland chief Freeman said the department will be hiring 65 new recruits in March and while breaking down barriers to help others is part of every firefighter’s job, firewomen have found that some have more doors to open than others.

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