“What do you do?”
That’s the question many ask Claire Van Guse after she tells them she’s a firefighter.
“I run a hose into a burning building,” she responds. “Or, I drive the truck.”
That often prompts the follow-up question: “You drive the truck?”
“Let’s just say that they don’t expect a female of my stature to be driving a fire engine,” Van Guse said.
Misunderstandings about the role of female firefighters aren’t that surprising. In 2016, 3.5 percent of firefighters in the United States were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And under-representation in the firefighting profession is almost double among women of color compared with white women, according to A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting.
Van Guse, who has been at Lacey Fire since 2014, and fellow Lacey firefighter Crystal Murphy, who has worked as a firefighter for more than 14 years, admit that at one point they didn’t even know women could be firefighters.
That’s why Murphy and her co-worker Jessica Johnson decided to organize Capital Metro Fire Girls Camp. They want to show young women that they can do anything they set their minds to — including drive the truck.
Young women between the ages of 14 and 18 are eligible to attend the free two-day camp, where they’ll climb a 105-foot aerial ladder, rappel out of a window, and learn to use chainsaws, among other firefighting skills.
“They need to see that they are capable,” Van Guse said. “They need to see strong women doing untraditional jobs, and they need to see themselves in those positions.”
The camp will be Aug. 26 and 27 at Olympia’s Mark Noble Regional Training Center on Fones Road. Those interested in attending can sign up online through eventbrite. Sign-ups for the 50 slots are first-come, first-serve, with preference given to those who can attend both days.
Female and male firefighters from up and down the West Coast have volunteered as instructors at the camp, which will be put on through in-kind donations from several local fire departments, according to Van Guse.
The Capital Metro Fire Girls Camp was inspired by Camp Blaze, a similar camp in North Bend that’s attended by young women across the nation. Van Guse, Murphy and Johnson have all volunteered at Camp Blaze.
“Seeing (Camp Blaze) inspired me to bring it back to our community,” Murphy said. “I think that the young women in our community are deserving of an experience like that.”
Lacey Fire already stands out when it comes to women in the fire service: 12 of the fire district’s 98 firefighters are women — more than three times the national percentage.
“We’re very proud of that,” Van Guse said. “We want to show young girls — and young boys, of course, but especially young girls — that they can do whatever they set their mind to.”
Besides learning hands-on skills, Murphy and Van Guse say the camp will teach girls leadership skills that they can use regardless of the profession they decide to pursue in the future.
“What we want to teach is of course the confidence and the leadership but also the resilience — how to push through the little voice in your head that says ‘No you can’t,’ or ‘You’re gonna fail,’ ” Murphy said.
That’s an important attitude to have when adapting to a traditionally male-dominated profession, according to Murphy.
Women in the fire service have to meet the same physical requirements as men, including climbing stairs for three minutes with 25-pound weights added to their shoulders at a rate of 60 steps per minute, carrying two saws for 150 feet, and dragging a 165-pound mannequin for 70 feet, all while outfitted in a 50-pound vest.
“We’ve earned our spot,” Van Guse said. “Male or female.”
But how they accomplish those tasks may be different. For example, women can throw the same heavy ladders that men can — but they might learn to do it using strength from their legs rather than their arms, Murphy said.
“As more women got into the field, we learned to adapt to the assignments that were given to us,” Murphy said. “It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s just that we have to do it differently. … We’ve learned which parts of our bodies are strong.”
There are advantages. Van Guse said women’s often shorter stature helps them get into smaller spaces than most of the men can, and they can sometimes serve as a more comforting presence during traumatic events.
Despite proving their physical ability, female firefighters sometimes face an additional challenge: the belief that they don’t belong in their profession.
“A large challenge is the mental toughness,” Murphy said. “There are some people who don’t want us in the job.”
Both women attribute negative attitudes toward women in the fire service as mostly a resistance to change. In a field that has been male-dominated for so long, simply knowing how to act toward female firefighters can be a learning experience, Murphy said.
So when she experiences sexism on the job, she confronts it “in a diplomatic and educational way,” often saying, “I don’t know why you feel that way. Let’s talk about it.”
Murphy said ultimately the only way to change attitudes about female firefighters is to increase their numbers.
“If a male has a problem with women in the fire service, they’re going to have to come to terms with it,” Murphy said. “Because we’re not going anywhere.”