Olathe Fire Hero Day inspires girls to consider firefighting career

By Beth Lipoff
Kansas City Star – June 15, 2018

Olathe firefighter Emily Peterson, right, helps 18-year-old Sophie Simon adjust her equipment before climbing a 75-foot fire ladder called a quint. Simon is a German exchange student currently living in Baldwin City. Photo by Beth Lipoff

On a day when the temperature passed 90 degrees, donning a firefighter’s uniform — complete with a helmet — and climbing a 75-foot ladder sounds too sweltering to be fun.

But on June 9, 19 girls seized the chance to see what it feels like to be a firefighter.

It’s called Olathe Fire Hero Day, a program the Olathe Fire Department has put on for three years in an effort to get more girls interested in a career as a firefighter. The department has three female firefighters who, along with their male colleagues, helped give the teens and pre-teens a taste of their training.

“I think this is awesome,” said Jen King, who has been a firefighter in Olathe for three years. “I think girls their age don’t see themselves in this position, because it’s a male-dominated career. I hope they get a glimpse and maybe a better understanding of what we do.”

Although they didn’t practice with real fire, the girls did get to try out quite a bit of the gear. Besides climbing atop a fire truck, the girls made their way through the maze of a practice house, working with each other to drag a hose through it.

“You really have to work as a team to get the hose through the house,” said 12-year-old Emily Heflin of Olathe.

Other challenges included crawling through a tunnel filled with hanging ropes to simulate unexpected obstacles, rappelling down a shaft in the practice house and suiting up in full heavy gear with breathing apparatuses.

Because a large part of a firefighter’s job is responding to medical emergencies unrelated to fires, the participants also received CPR training.

Only 7 percent of firefighters in the United States are women. Firefighter Maureen Griffin, who helped organize Olathe’s program, hopes to see that number increase.

“It’s kind of a stepping stone for us. It gives that first one-day glimpse,” Griffin said.

Part of the reason there are so few female firefighters is that people aren’t aware that it’s a viable career for women, Griffin said.

“It’s not a lack of (fire departments) desiring it, it’s a lack of having women come for the positions …Even when I’m on calls, I’ll have adults say, ‘I didn’t know women could do this.’”

Although many participants were Olathe residents, the program drew girls from all over the metro and beyond.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie Simon came in from Baldwin City to take part in the training. The German exchange student hopes to be a paramedic someday and wanted to get a taste of what the firefighters she hopes to work with do each day.

“I think it’s pretty cool to see. You definitely have to be good with heights, especially when you have 50 pounds of equipment,” she said.

Griffin’s nieces planned a visit from their hometown in Illinois specifically to coincide with this weekend so they could take part in the program. The annual program is open to any teenage girl who wants to sign up, and there is no cost to attend.

“It’s really hard work to do and complete, especially on an everyday basis, for the most part like actual firefighters do, but it’s still really, really fun,” said 15-year-old Alexis Applegate of Olathe.

Girls and boys ages 14-20 who are interested can also apply for the Fire Explorers program, which runs throughout the year and provides training as well as ride-along opportunities. Several of the girls who took part in Fire HERO Day are in the program and served as peer models as they worked side by side with less experienced girls.

The fire department also runs a training program through Olathe West High School as part of the district’s 21st Century Academies.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
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