Botetourt County promoted the fire camp with images such as this one. From left: Christina Blankenship, Laura Kate Jennings-Brink, Kayla Jones, Macy Thompson, Caitlin Mitchell, Kourtnie Orth, and Catherine Amos. All either work for Botetourt Fire-EMS or are volunteers. Courtesy of Botetourt County.

When Melanie Wimmer asked her daughter if she wanted to take part in the Girls’ Fire Camp this summer in Botetourt County, 10-year-old Mia told her mom she didn’t realize that women could be firefighters. 

Now Mia is excited to participate in the camp and learn more about what her 27-year-old brother does as a career firefighter and emergency medical technician for Botetourt Fire & EMS. 

“It’s something different and it’s a program to let these ladies know that you can be a firefighter, you can be a paramedic,” said Melanie Wimmer, of Salem. 

Botetourt is holding the Girls’ Fire Camp on June 18 at Lord Botetourt High School in Daleville to inform kids about the option of a future career in fire-rescue, and possibly to get parents interested in volunteering or becoming career employees. It’s part of the agency’s efforts to address the challenges of recruiting and retention that are faced by many departments in Virginia and across the U.S., especially when it comes to attracting women to the male-dominated profession.

The fire camp idea was so popular that all the initial spots were filled within 24 hours after registration began. Organizers had planned to have 50 openings but expanded it to 58. Another 45 girls are on a waiting list. 

Chief Jason Ferguson of Botetourt Fire & EMS said that within 48 hours or so after the department posted on social media that parents could register their daughters for the fire camp, about three Facebook accounts appeared and posted that they had tickets for sale to the camp, which is free of charge.

Taylor Lunsford, recruitment and retention specialist for Botetourt Fire & Rescue, looked into each of the three Facebook accounts and “they didn’t appear to be credible accounts,” Ferguson said.

“I think some cyber criminal just saw an opportunity to sell something,” Ferguson said.

Lunsford said a $5,000 grant from the International Association of Fire Chiefs Volunteer Workforce Solutions is paying for the one-day event. It’s for girls who are rising into first grade up through to rising 12th graders. 

Lunsford said the first half of the one-day program will be focused on fire safety in the home, and the science of how fires operate. The girls will get to use a small hose to spray water on a fire and learn to use an extinguisher. They also will see a mock car crash and the rescue of an injured person by an all-women crew of first responders. A Carilion Clinic rescue helicopter is expected to land, Lunsford said.

The girls in elementary school will only take part in the first half of the day’s events. The older girls will also participate in the second session, which will be focused on EMT work. They will learn about first aid and CPR and, under heavy supervision, they’ll get to use equipment that extracts people from car crashes.

The Girls’ Fire Camp is being held in honor of the late Helen “Gracey” Humbert, a retired Botetourt Fire & EMS captain who also worked for Roanoke Fire-EMS. She died in April after a long battle with breast cancer. 

Lunsford recalled that when she was a high school student in Botetourt, it was not widely known that a fire-rescue career was available to women. Whenever she would see fire-EMS recruiters, they were men. 

“So you didn’t really picture yourself in that position. It’s hard to visualize,” she said. “It’s something that’s there when you need it, but it’s not always something you think of as a career.”

Jessica Moreno, a Botetourt resident and former nurse at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, signed up her three daughters, 9-year-old Raelyn Clark, 11-year-old Jalissa Moreno and 13-year-old Faith Cramer, for the fire camp. She said there aren’t a lot of activities for kids in Botetourt and this was an interesting one.

“They don’t have to be firefighters, but just to encourage them that women can do it as well,” said Moreno, who is working on getting a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and wants to be an FBI agent.

“They are very excited,” Moreno said of her daughters. “They keep thinking they are going to go into a burning building and put out a fire. I told them there might be a little fire, like a demonstration, but it will be learning and demonstration.”

Nationwide, only 4% of career firefighters and about 11% of volunteer fire service personnel are women, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA. 

In Virginia and elsewhere, agencies are having trouble recruiting and retaining both men and women, said Larry Gwaltney, executive director of the Virginia State Firefighters Association. 

“Every volunteer agency that I know of needs help,” said Gwaltney, a retired battalion chief for Hampton Fire & Rescue.

Ferguson said his department has seen fewer and fewer people interested in a career as a firefighter or EMT in recent years. 

“We have so much to offer besides just day-to-day emergencies that we respond to,” Ferguson said, adding that working in the fire-EMS field offers “a gateway to the health care industry.”

“It gives folks a chance to see what medicine is all about,” Ferguson added. “A lot of physicians started as EMTs because it really prepares you.”

In Botetourt, about 14% of the 56 full-time career positions allotted for the department had been vacant, with eight full-time vacancies. On May 27, seven of those positions were filled but the new recruits will not finish recruit school and report for full duty until the fall. 

Ferguson also said he is trying to recruit more volunteers and would like to have at least 50 more. 

Deputy Chief Marci Stone of Roanoke Fire-EMS said that when she first applied to work for the city department in 1997, about 10 to 12 people typically would get hired every year, out of 300 applicants. 

Stone attributed the change, in part, to the fact that many young people are encouraged to go to college and end up leaving their hometowns and entering the white-collar workforce. Stone said that a fire-rescue career is seen as blue-collar work because only a high school diploma is required. 

Part of the reason it’s so hard to recruit both men and women is because many fire-rescue agencies require employees to work 24-hour shifts, making it difficult for new employees to take care of family obligations, Stone said.

She said she has been involved in discussions about possibly changing the requirement but there has been resistance to change.

“We do have to look in the future that all the policies and practices, including our shifts, are inclusive,” she said.

Stone said the Roanoke department has 243 full-time career fire-rescue personnel and that only five of them are women, including her. A sixth woman is now in recruit school and scheduled to graduate in October.

In the city of Salem, only four out of 70 full-time Fire-EMT employees are women, said Deputy Chief Matt Rickman of Salem Fire-EMS. And about eight to 10 of the department’s 25 part-time employees are women. 

The fire-rescue agencies in Salem, Botetourt, Roanoke and Roanoke County use a joint-hiring process. In a typical hiring cycle, Rickman said, the team of four departments typically has no more than four women applicants eligible for hire. 

“Some years we don’t have any,” he said, adding that Salem has hired about five women in the past five years.

When Stone began her career as a firefighter, she said she initially had to show her male colleagues that she could measure up and then had to prove herself again each time she was promoted. Stone said she and a colleague became the first women to be hired for fire suppression duties in Roanoke in the late 1990s.

“I had to have grit. I had to have drive and ambition,” she said. “There was a microscope on me.”

Stone became a volunteer EMT at age 16 when she was a student at Franklin County High School. She had been in a car accident at age 15, and a then-16-year-old fellow Franklin High School student was one of the volunteer EMTs who responded to the scene. 

While they were in the back of an ambulance, she asked him about volunteering and later went on a ride-along with him. When she was on crutches because of her knee injury, the young man even helped carry her things when they were at school.

“I wanted to serve in the community, and I wanted to help people in need and I wanted to be outside,” Stone said. “I love the job. I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I really feel like it’s a calling.”

She said she’d be happy to talk to anyone who is considering a career in the fire-rescue field. Anyone interested in doing so can reach her by calling the general number at Roanoke Fire-EMS, 540-853-2327.

Reed Williams

Reed Williams is a veteran reporter and editor who has worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times and The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.