CEDAR RAPIDS — A group of 14 young women stands in the bay of the Central Fire Station in Cedar Rapids lugging their turnout gear from red bags and onto the floor.
All teenagers, each one steps into a pair of steel-toed boots and pulls up the heavy pants worn by firefighters. Then come the gloves and, of course, the helmet.
Cedar Rapids Fire Capt. Cheme Fairlie, one of five women on the 144-member force, enters the bay, counting the young women and organizing them into groups.
“Uno, dos, tres,” she says. “One, two, three.”
Fairlie tells group one to follow firefighter paramedic Julie Popelka and those in groups two and three to follow her. They are about to learn how to handle a water hose.
The young women make their way out to the driveway of the station, 713 First Ave. SE, where a firetruck sits. Fairlie runs through the basics like finding a water source upon arrival, how to position the pump and move the hose.
Then, it’s time to blast water.
Each team takes a turn trying to tame — and aim — the powerful hose.
“The future is female,” says Lucy Blair, 19, of Iowa City, one of the participants in this week’s “Fully Involved: Young Women’s Fire Academy” offered by the Cedar Rapids Fire Department. “The women here are just amazing, I look up to them. They’re defying gender norms by doing this job every day.”
The four-day camp — for those ages 15 to 19 — kicked off Monday and continues through Thursday with training taking place each day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It aims to make young women aware that a career as a firefighter is an option and, ultimately, increase the number of female firefighters.
Cost to attend was $30 per person.
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The curriculum was developed by Fairlie, Popelka and the three other female members of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department — Emergency Management Services Program Director Amy Kunkle and firefighters Janeen Justice and Megan Wichmann. It aims to teach participants what it takes to become a firefighter, including information on the physical qualification test, search and rescue techniques, fire extinguisher training, personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus.
Participants also will leave the academy trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation — or CPR.
“Just learning from the women about how they do things and how they have fought adversity from the boys and just gaining all the hands-on experience has been amazing — so much fun,” said Madison Berry, 17, who lives in the small Benton County community of Atkins.
Having previously participated in the Marion Citizens Fire Academy and as a Hiawatha Explorer — a worksite-based program for young men and women interested in fire service — Berry said the “Fully Involved” academy fits her interest in medical-related fields and gaining hands-on experience.
She said she enjoyed being part of an academy for women and taught by women.
“We know this is a male-dominated field, and in some ways, as females, we think differently,” Fairlie said. “So, when you approach teaching ... one of the things we learn is how the males teach it.
“I’m used to coming in and teaching it that way, but I have women (here) who think like I do. So I’ve actually had to change things.”
The young women involved, many of whom had never met before this week, have bonded over the shared experience of learning firefighting and working as a team — something Patience Duval has enjoyed.
“There is no ‘I’ in teamwork because without each other, you could be killed in a fire,” Duval said. “You have to really trust them.”
Aside from fire hose training on Wednesday, participants learned how to climb ladders — both on the ladder truck and up the side of one of the department’s drill towers.
“Everything has been trying new things and reaching new goals,” Duval said.
Fairlie said she was excited by the level of enthusiasm shown by the academy participants.
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“It’s a big family, it’s having sisters,” she said. “And we’re just having fun through showing them different techniques, showing them what we enjoy about it.
“We love this job and we want to pass this career and the passion we have for it (down) and show them this is an option for you.”
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