Marriottsville camp aims to recruit future female firefighters
When Christine Uhlhorn became a firefighter in Howard County 28 years ago, there were few women in her department.
“The firehouse was made to accommodate one gender,” she said.Men and women would share restrooms.
Uhlhorn is now an assistant fire chief in Howard County, where officials want to recruit more women. To encourage more women to consider careers in fire and rescue, Uhlhorn and others from the department volunteered at a weekend-long camp teaching basic firefighter and EMT skills to middle school-age girls at the county’s Public Safety Training Center in Marriottsville.
More than two dozen girls learned how to dress in turnout gear, extinguish a fire, break down a fire hose and re-rack it to the truck, and sweep buildings to search for victims. They also earned CPR certification. The crash course was adapted from the training that recruits must complete before working for the department.
“We want to educate them about careers in public safety,” Uhlhorn said. But the camp is also an opportunity to challenge the girls and help build their confidence, she said.
“We want to encourage them to overcome their fears,” Uhlhorn said.
After nine hours of training Sunday, the girls broke into squads and waited to respond to mock emergency calls to practice their new skills. They climbed into ladder trucks driven by off-duty firefighters, who took them to scenes that included a “burning” vehicle and a woman who had fallen and cut herself.
At the medical call, the volunteer victim wore a fake rubbery wound on her forearm. The girls wrapped it with gauze.
Fire recruit Jacob Liebno, who recently completed his training at the center, bent to examine their work.
“This is a lot,” he said. “But you had the right idea. All in all, good job, guys.”
Another group was called to a vehicle fire. The girls got into turnout gear, borrowed from firefighters. For some, the bulky adult-sized suits provided an additional challenge.
The “flames” were wood cutouts painted hot pink. The young trainees quickly unfurled the hose from the truck, held it as a group and doused the fire.
Another group responded to a building fire. The girls climbed to the second floor of a training facility building to search for victims.
“Get on your hands and knees,” 10-year firefighter Sarah Gajewski instructed. Opening a door to a pitch-black room, the girls dropped to the ground, formed a line and felt their way along the wall. They found a mannequin and dragged it to safety.
Gajewski said much has changed since she started in the department. She noted improvements in equipment, and in the environment at the firehouse.
When she first volunteered at a fire station in Florida, Gajewski said, it was rare to see women firefighters. While she’s still in the minority, she said it’s now common to work alongside another woman during her shift.
Gajewski said she hopes to show girls through example that they too, can be firefighters.
“We’re making advances,” she said. “Doing stuff like this really helps these girls.”
Miranda Hoffman, a 13-year-old from Mount Airy, said the camp reinforced her interest in becoming an EMT. She said she enjoyed the medical calls best.
“The calls were good practice,” she said.