July 18—Kyleigh Lough, 12, held a large fire hose and opened the nozzle, shooting a powerful jet of water 20 feet into a green traffic cone and knocking it over.
"It looks really fun, I think," Kyleigh said when asked if she might like to be a firefighter one day. "They don't just fight fires—they help people. They go along with police officers and help people who get hurt."
Kyleigh and about 60 other kids took part in the third annual Teen Firefighter Camp at Fire Station No. 7 next to the airport on Tuesday. The camp is designed to expose teens to the skills necessary to be a firefighter. In addition to shooting a real fire hose, the group also:
Climbed aboard a fire truck to see all its equipment.
Put on the heavy bunker gear.
Saw how people are rescued from wrecked cars.
Toured the facility.
About half of the attendees were young women, a population the Lakeland Fire Department is targeting for recruitment because only eight of its 150 firefighter/emergency medical technicians are women. There are an additional 22 personnel who are administrative staff and chief officers.
"We believe diversity is an important component in the delivery of our services," Assistant Fire Chief Mike Williams told the Lakeland City Commission on Monday. He acknowledged that less than 5 percent of LFD's force is female. "We believe these numbers are low because of a lack of awareness. We're trying to remove barriers so women see this as a desirable career."
The push for more women is being driven by Fire Chief Doug Riley. While Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said LFD is ranked among the top 1 percent of fire departments in the country, Riley wants to do better. His department has produced a recruitment video targeting women. Riley has spent his entire professional career with the Lakeland Fire Department, joining when he was 20 years old as a firefighter and rising to the rank of fire chief last December.
He pointed out that a beginning firefighter/EMT recruit earns about $42,000 after going through a year-long school at a cost of about $5,000. Scholarships are available.
"For the investment, it's a heck of a return," said Riley, who earns $136,000 as chief.
Firefighters work 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Those with the department fewer than five years get six paid 24-hour vacation days annually, 9 holidays, 12 sick days, are enrolled in a pension plan, and receive tuition assistance. Firefighters who also become paramedics can start at nearly $49,000 a year.
Candice McLendon, 34, joined the department three years ago after family, friends and a former boss all told her she would be good at the job.
"The most exciting impact is you're making a difference in a person's life, a patient's life," McLendon said. "They automatically feel better and more comfortable in the situation because there's someone here that can take care of the situation."
McLendon said she hasn't carried a person out of a burning building yet, but she has rescued family pets from fires and delivered two babies.
Cheryl Edwards worked her way up from a public education and information officer in 1994 to a leadership position in the department, for which she serves as fire marshal. She said the department provides a sense of belonging or family because of the level of teamwork involved.
"It is a career where you are challenged not only physically, but mentally," Edwards said in an email Tuesday. "I feel that women bring something different to the role of firefighter than a man does, and the fire service needs a wide range of people with different knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes to best address the wide variety of calls to which it responds. Women often have a different perspective on matters and often weigh risks differently than a man."
Back at the Teen Firefighter Camp, Esmeralda Madrid, 13, said you have to be strong to be a firefighter.
"I wanted to come to see what it felt like to be a firefighter and how they work to take out a fire," Esmeralda said.