By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
In past articles I’ve written about fire experience summer camps for young people, particularly girls and young women. Camps like Camp Blaze, Camp Fury, Camp HERO, and the West Virginia University Junior Firefighter Camp are giving young people hands on experience in fire and EMS skills hopefully starts or feeds their desire to become a career or volunteer firefighter.
Recently I had the opportunity speak with one of the founders of Camp FFIT, a summer firefighter camp for young women in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Camp FFIT just completed its 9th year in August of this year. The camp, which accepts 24 campers per year, began in 2010 through the efforts of many people, none more so its founders Carisa Campbell-Darmody, Sue Jones, and Louise Hines-Schmidt.
Sue Jones, currently a fire prevention officer with Ottawa Fire Services after spending eight years as a firefighter with that department, spoke with me by phone and told me a good deal about how Camp FITT came to be and where it’s headed in the future.
How did Camp FITT get started?
One of our people, Carisa Campbell-Darmody, went to a woman’s firefighter training weekend down in New York state. While she was there she learned about a firefighter camp for girls, the Phoenix Firecamp, put on by the Fire Service Women of New York State (FSWNYS). This was around 2008.
So, she came back really excited about this camp thing and the following year several of us women in the department—me, Carisa, and Louise—had the opportunity to attend Phoenix Firecamp the next year.
So, what were able to observe and learn while there?
We thought we were going to observe but were quickly put to work. I led the ropes and knots evolution, while Louise was a platoon leader, and Carissa worked with the director at the time, Lt. Anna Schermerhorn Collins from FDNY. We also helped with extrication, ladder operations, water rescue, and other evolutions. It was an incredible week. We learned a tremendous amount from our new mentors.
What came next?
Well, obviously we all came back excited about our experiences and how would be so cool to do something like Phoenix Firecamp here in Ottawa.
Where did that thought go?
We spoke with our Chief of Training at the time, Dave Cranidge, and initially we thought of trying to run the camp the same way, through a not-for-profit organization, similar to FSWNYS.
Chief Cranidge and the General Manager of Emergency and Protective Services at the time, Susan Jones – no relation – knew this was a program we needed in our city to offer as a grass roots recruiting tool. We’ve had incredible support from our Interim Chief Kim Ayotte and current Deputy Chief, Sean Tracey, as well as now retired Chiefs John DeHooge and Gerry Pingitore.
(Note: Ayoote had the Interim label removed when he was named Fire Chief on August 29th).
How important was it have champions like that, high ranking male officers, in the beginning?
It was crucial. We have approximately 960 union personnel and another 450 volunteers in our department and a very small percentage are women, so we really needed that male support and the support of our Chiefs, as well as from the other women as we were counting on both men and women to become instructors.
What was what were some of your early challenges in bringing Camp FFIT into the world?
One of the challenges we chuckle about now was convincing our legal and liability executives that having young women aerial ladder, rappelling, and operating hose lines while wearing air packs was a good idea. We overcame their resistance by carefully explaining the safety mechanisms and equipment we would be using to reduce any risks. We were careful to be over and above the expectations from the Ministry of Labor and our own department’s Standard Operation Procedures.
Any other hurdles?
I would have to say that another was convincing many of our male counterparts that this was a good thing?
Why was that?
There was some resistance to the idea of presenting the camp only to young women. And there was an unfounded concern that young women would be hired simply because they attended, what is essentially, a one-week summer camp. Hindsight being 20/20, we probably spent too much time trying to overcome that hurdle.
People who were going to accept and support the idea of the camp, and the department supporting it, were always going to be okay with it. And those who weren’t? We learned that there is no convincing some that it’s a great opportunity to invite everyone to apply to this career, and that it’s really not necessary to force others to change their minds.
So, tell me more about how Camp FFIT came to exist.
After we were given the go-ahead to run the camp, I was temporarily reassigned from Operations to our Training Division to develop the curriculum for the program. I was there for about four months ending in May. The rest of the work was done on our own time in the station during down time or at home. We had our first group of young women show up for Camp FFIT #1 in August of 2010.
One of our greatest allies has always been Captain Mark Saunders, one our training officers. Mark helped me focus my energy and passion for the program and make Camp FFIT the success that it is. We continue to work together to deliver the program, making changes each year–sometimes on the fly!–and we’re already considering some big changes for our 10th camp next summer.
How did you and the others come up with the name Camp FFIT and what does FFIT stand for?
Ironically, we were struggling to come up with a name for the camp. I was at work and talking with one of the other firefighters, Marc-Andre Paiment. He said, “Why don’t you just call it Camp FFIT – Female Firefighters In Training?” There was no way to come up with another name after hearing that one!