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Breaking down barriers

Dressed in full firefighter gear, a group of young women gathered at the entrance to a building as simulated smoke poured out.

They dropped to their hands and knees and crawled in.

Moving blindly inside the murky interior, they kept in contact through touch and their voices as they searched for simulated victims.

They discovered a model baby on a bed and a model child behind a set of drawers, then followed each other to safety back out into the sunlight and fresh air with the models in tow.

“We were able to grab the ‘victims’ and bring them out,” said Nayely Contreras, a 17-year-old from Medford.

Young women ages 16-20 searched murky buildings, rappelled off a tower, cut open vehicles and climbed a towering ladder truck Sunday during the first Rogue Girls Fire Camp. The camp was held at a training site in White City used by area fire departments.

The hands-on event was designed to get women interested in the male-dominated profession of firefighting.

Women already working in the firefighting field served as instructors.

Medford Fire-Rescue Deputy Fire Marshal Samantha Metheny offered tips for conducting an effective search — and staying alive — inside a burning building.

Working together, one firefighter crawls through a house and stays in contact with walls while a buddy hangs onto the person’s ankle, conducting a wide sweep.

“We don’t have to hang on the whole time. But we’re touching. We’re tapping. We’re saying, ’Hey, are you still there?’” Metheny told the young women.

If a person feels a chair or other piece of furniture, the firefighters stop to search the area for a victim. Metheny said victims inside burning buildings are often confused, disoriented or unconscious. They end up huddled or passed out in odd spaces.

“We’re yelling all the time. ‘Fire department! Anyone in here?’” Metheny said. “You have to stop and listen.”

She advised feeling for clues. A large carpeted area is likely the living room, while a slick floor is probably a kitchen. A small space with small or no windows may be a bathroom, and bedrooms are often nearby.

“There’s just little things like that to mark where we’re going in that house,” Metheny said.

After coming out of the building with simulated victims, Contreras said she has new respect for how hard it is to search inside a dark, hot, noisy space without getting lost.

“It was pretty difficult. But if I can do it, other girls can do it,” she said.

Contreras said she attended the Rogue Girls Fire Camp because she has been considering firefighting as a career.

“Now that I’m here, I know that I want to pursue it,” she said.

At the rappelling tower, Rural Metro Fire Department Lt. and Paramedic Annetta Cooper showed the young women how to put on harnesses, go out a window and make their way down the side of a building using a rope.

“The fire service is not just hoses and water. We’re called upon to do all manner of things and all manner of rescues. So rope skills are definitely part of what they need to learn if they want to be a firefighter,” Cooper said.

When she started in the field more than 20 years ago, girls weren’t commonly told firefighting was a career choice.

“So part of what we’re doing here is opening young women’s eyes to the fact that this is an opportunity,” Cooper said. “It’s a great job. The fire departments are accepting of women these days and it’s a great opportunity. The job is exciting. It’s very rewarding and it should be open to everybody. And that’s what we’re trying to teach these girls — that they can do it if they want to.”

Despite the hot weather, head-to-toe protective gear and heavy equipment, Cooper said the young women were pushing through and learning new skills.

Sydni Silver, 20, of Grants Pass said it’s just a matter of practice to learn how to rappel down a building.

“At first when you’re hanging out the window and you’re looking straight down, it’s extremely terrifying,” she said. “But once you’re on the outside and you start getting lowered, you get really used to the feeling of having your feet against the wall and you slide down slowly. So it gets a lot easier when you’re already outside.”

Silver recently finished training to become an EMT, but is also interested in fire science.

She said the thought of becoming a firefighter can be intimidating to some girls because of the tough physical tasks the job requires.

“A lot of us are still going to try to get at it and conquer the same things the men do,” Silver said.

Jackson County Fire District 3 Chief Bob Horton said the physical challenges of the job are tough for everyone — regardless of whether they are male or female.

He said everyone has to meet minimum standards to ensure they can handle the rigors of the job.

Horton said fire departments are thinking about how they can interest more women in the profession. The Rogue Girls Fire Camp — which was first proposed by local female firefighters — could be a way to break down barriers.

“I’ve even faced questions from folks. ‘Are women allowed to be firefighters?’ And I think that’s a shame in 2019 that question would arise,” he said.

Silver said she thinks the Rogue Girls Fire Camp will succeed in attracting the next generation of women to firefighting careers.

“After doing it, I find that I really do love it. A lot of the girls I’ve talked to are also super interested in it,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Young women learn firefighting skills during Rogue Girls Fire Camp on Sunday.(Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.)