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Brief History: Inclusivity in the Fire Service

Women have been firefighters for over 200 years. The first woman firefighter was Molly Williams. An African American, she was held as a slave belonging to a New York City merchant by the name of Benjamin Aymar who was affiliated with the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in 1818. During her time in the company she was called Volunteer No. 11. Williams made a distinguished presence in her sturdy work clothes of calico dress and checked apron and was said to be "as good a fire laddie as many of the boys." Her service was noted particularly during the blizzard of 1818. Male firefighters were scarce due to an influenza outbreak, but Williams took her place with the men on the drag-ropes and pulled the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.

In Pittsburgh in 1820, Marina Betts made history serving as the first women volunteer firefighter for the city. Betts was said to have never missed an alarm during her 10 years of service and was remembered for pouring buckets of water over male bystanders who refused to help put out fires.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit is also considered to be one of the first female firefighters in America. In 1859, Coit (who was still a teenager at the time) became an honorary member of San Francisco’s Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5, when she helped the company haul the engine to a fire on Telegraph Hill.

By 1910 all-women volunteer fire companies were running in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California. During World War II, many women entered the volunteer fire service to take the place of men who had been called into active duty service for the military. Two military fire departments in Illinois were staffed entirely by women for part of the war. In 1942 the first all-female forest firefighting crew in California was created

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, fire departments could no longer prevent women from applying for jobs as firefighters. Many women went to work for the departments but were still ostracized by their male colleagues and much of the protective equipment they were issued did not fit properly. Another major hurdle to entrance into firefighting for women was the lack of facilities. The immediate problem of sleeping quarters and bathing areas had to be solved before women could participate fully in firefighting as an occupation and as a culture. Communal showers and open bunk halls were designed for men only. Today, most stations are now designed to accommodate firefighters of both genders. Despite those issues, women continued to make great strides in the firefighting profession that still continues to this day. Presently, over 7,000 women now hold career firefighting and fire officer’s positions in the United States, with thousands more in Canada, Great Britain, and other countries throughout the world.

Our History: How this Bootcamp Became

The brainchild behind the Fire-Up Bootcamp is Ila Borders. Ila's history and story alone cannot be filled in this simple paragraph (You'll have to buy the book!) But what manifested from years of hard work and a desire to change the diversity of the fire service, Ila approached several close friends and the idea of launching the first ever Fire-Up Bootcamp became a reality in 2019. Thanks to the support of her administration and partners (see our board page) the bootcamp was a huge success. This brings us to our current day and where we are going. The Fire-Up Bootcamps' vision is to create a more inclusive and diverse fire service. We do this by creating camps that reach out to people whom normal traditional recruitment advertisements don't speak to, and to demographics poorly represented in the fire service. Our camps are not recruitment mills, rather they are designed to replicate what being a real firefighter is like and leaving the decision up to the attendees if they want to take steps to further their knowledge. Additionally, the instructors and staff are all in the fire service so the networking, coaching, peer support and mentorship occurs at an organic level. Real relationships are born and real life changing results for everyone can and usually do happen. As our camps and opportunities change, we will try to always stay ahead of the curve to monitor fire service changes and trends, and to adapt our approach and style to best fit the needs of those interested in pursuing the fire service as either volunteers or career members.

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