Sparking an interest: Teens explore firefighting at weeklong camp | SLIDESHOW

A slight and conscientious Holli McKenzie is determined to be with the boys and pull her own weight, regardless of the demanding firefighting drill.

Seth Cranefield

Seth Cranefield

A slight and conscientious Holli McKenzie is determined to be with the boys and pull her own weight, regardless of the demanding firefighting drill.

It means methodically rolling and hooking up hoses, spraying water from long, hefty lines and swiftly scaling ladders into empty, two-story buildings. It requires plenty of muscle, quick thinking, repetition and execution, often donning heavy bunker firefighting gear, carrying air packs and using stout tools.

Undaunted, McKenzie was up to the task last week, doing carefully designed search-and-rescue and fire suppression exercises. The senior-to-be at Kentlake High School joined 21 other local teens for a multifaceted summer fire school – a free, week-long camp co-hosted by the Kent Regional Fire Authority and Kent School District – at the Station 74 training center.

The purpose of the program is to introduce teens to the field of emergency response and the qualifications necessary to become a firefighter, while emphasizing the importance of grades, hard work and teamwork.

For McKenzie and the program’s inaugural class of ’16, it was an eye-opening and rewarding adventure.

“Anyone should do this, even if you’re not into firefighting,” McKenzie said between drills last week. “It’s just a real good experience, but I don’t think a lot of girls are doing this, and more girls should get into this.”

Female and minority firefighters remain few and far between in station houses throughout the country.

From 2008 to 2012, about 3.8 percent of paid firefighters in the U.S. were women, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. The 2010 U.S. census put that number at 4.8 percent.

According to Capt. Kyle Ohashi, spokesman for the Kent RFA, recent national statistics have shown that women and minorities fill about 17 percent of firefighting and emergency-response-related jobs.

One of the biggest reasons for the low numbers? Fire officials say not many women and minorities apply. By exposing them early and often to the occupation, Ohashi hopes those numbers will change.

“It’s not a guy thing, it’s a people thing,” he said.

Showing the possibilities

The camp, Ohashi said, presents and explains the many career possibilities to fire department life, from administration to IT work, from the chaplain’s role to emergency services in general. The camp also serves as a stepping stone for those teens interested in volunteering for the King County Fire Zone 3 Explorers, a program that prepares young men and women to become future firefighters.

“We are hoping to make this an annual summer program,” Ohashi said. “It’s about letting the kids find out that there’s a physical side to it … but that there are also different aspects of the fire department. … There’s a lot more to a fire department than just firefighting.

“It’s to push them a little bit, but also to introduce them to something that they may not have thought about as a job.”

Gordon Plett, a firefighter with Maple Valley Fire and Life Safety, spent some time working with the teens at camp last week. Plett, who also is involved with the area’s Explorer program, was participating with his son, Connor, a sophomore-to-be at Kentwood.

“They get a glimpse of what we do, not on a daily basis, but frequently,” Plett said. “They’re getting their feet wet, exploring what they want to do in the future.”

Teens are rarely hired to go into the profession right away. Typically, the 20-something recruit begins a career in firefighting, Ohashi said.

“That’s when they are more well rounded, mature,” Ohashi said. “But we what them, as they move forward, to kinda look back and go, ‘Huh, you know what? Now that I’m 22, 23, got my college degree and I’ve worked at a couple of jobs and I’m ready for a career, I really liked what I did back in high school with the fire department. I think I will apply with them.’ “

Lucas Hewitt, a sophomore-to-be at Kentridge, caught the summer fire school notice in a newsletter. It caught his attention, and he was glad to give it a go.

“It’s well organized, and some of it’s pretty challenging,” he said. “It’s one of the things I might want to, volunteer maybe.”

McKenzie is considering a career as a paramedic, maybe become an emergency room nurse. She already has earned a certified nursing assistant degree but is looking for something more. She knows just getting into the profession on paper is competitive enough.

“It is a real hard job to get into from what I’ve been hearing,” she said. “So you have to be really physically fit.”

The camp was a good fit – even for the diminutive Olivia Nguyen, a freshman-to-be at Kentridge. The 5-foot-1 Nguyen, nicknamed “O-Ninja,” had little trouble raising and climbing ladders with instruction.

“It was fun,” she said, her smile filled with braces. “I like ladders.”

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