Camp to introduce teen girls to firefighting begins in Mississauga

A new camp designed to spark an interest in firefighting among teenage girls gets underway Monday in Mississauga.

First female fire captain in Mississauga says camp is designed 'to ignite that spark' in girls

Shelli Varela, first female fire captain at Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services, designed a camp for teenage girls to inspire them to consider firefighting as a career. (Supplied by Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services)

A new camp designed to spark an interest in firefighting among teenage girls is underway in Mississauga. 

Shelli Varela, the first female firefighter in Mississauga and now captain of Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services, said the girls will get an overview of the rewarding job of firefighting. Varela will lead the camp that runs until Friday. She joined the Mississauga fire department in 1994 and became captain in 2008.

"We want to ignite that spark in them and show them that it is possible and it's really rewarding and viable career," Varela told Metro Morning on Monday. 

"We wanted to make sure that everybody feels welcome. We were finding that we were getting fewer girls applying and we wanted to make sure that everybody felt welcome and sees it as an opportunity for themselves."

Camp is 'mini-version' of firefighter boot camp

Twenty girls, aged 15 to 19, will learn basic firefighting, the basics of pump and ladder operations, the mechanics of an aerial ladder climb, the basics of technical rescue and forcible entry and will see an auto extrication demonstration. All participants, who need steel-toed boots, will work with members of the Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services.

The camp is a "mini-version of what a recruit firefighter would get," she said.

Varela said she designed the camp because girls do not always have the same emotional connection to firefighting that boys do. "Because the connection isn't there, girls generally don't investigate a career in firefighting. With Camp Ignite, we want to show young women that firefighting isn't just possible but could be the ideal path for them," she said in a statement.

Initially an artist, Varela was drawn to firefighting after learning about the job from a male friend, a Toronto firefighter, who told her "all these amazing stories." He taught her about the job, from hazardous materials to fire pumps to the science of fire, and encouraged her to apply.  

"I loved it," she said. It turned out that she not only has a natural mechanical aptitude, but also that her height (five foot two) has been an advantage in certain situations.

'You don't know until you try it out'

Early in her career, she and firefighters were called to a rollover in which a car had flipped over on its roof. The roof was crushed and the victim was suspended upside down by her seatbelt. Varela was small enough to crawl into the car through the back window and stabilize the woman. She was put on a backboard and slid out safely.

Razan Charifa, 19 years old, a camp participant, told Metro Morning that she is eager to learn more about firefighting after having graduated from a police foundations program.

"You don't know until you try it out," she said. "It's going to be a new experience for me. I want to gain more knowledge and to help the community. It's a great thing to get into that field. There's not a lot of women in firefighting."

Charifa is interested in learning about how to approach a house on fire and bring a blaze under control.

Tim Beckett, fire chief of Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services, said in a statement that the fire department wants more women to apply and the camp is one way to encourage greater numbers.

"Diversity in our fire service is an extremely important issue for us. It's essential that residents are able to see themselves in the crews that are proudly serving their city," he said.

"We are encouraged that women are applying to the fire service but it's not happening in the numbers that it would take to make a significant difference and we want to change that."