Firefighting Is For Girls

Most girls don't dream of becoming firefighters when they grow up. Clare Burley wants to change that.

Photo by Skip Brown

Name: Clare Burley
Age: 39
Lives In: Ashburn, with her boyfriend of nine years who is also a firefighter with Arlington County. Born and raised in London.
Current Job: Arlington County firefighter and paramedic since 2007 (Station 10 in Rosslyn) but currently on temporary assignment as an instructor at Arlington’s Fire Training Academy. Also a founder of Camp Heat, a firefighting camp for girls. The Arlington County Fire Department’s 29 female career firefighter/EMS providers represent 8 percent of its workforce, compared to a national average of 3.7 percent.

Past jobs: I never considered firefighting as a career. I was a lifeguard all through high school and college, and I briefly looked into being a paramedic, but it wasn’t a livable wage [in England]. I studied history at the University of Warwick and then worked as an advertising account manager before becoming a customs investigator in London.

Climbing the ladder: As a customs investigator, I went to Iraq to do some border security work and made a few contacts [in the D.C. area]. I was looking on the Arlington County website for law-enforcement jobs when I saw that the fire department was hiring. Here I am almost 10 years later—and still loving it!

On gender bias: There is none in Arlington. The hiring process and the physical requirements you have to meet are all exactly the same for men and women. As a woman, there is no getting an easier task. You may even be watched a little more closely to ensure your crew is confident you are physically able to do the job.

A serious workout: Throwing ladders is hard for shorter people, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman [Burley is 5 foot 4]. You need to have a lot of upper-body strength. When you apply, the department provides a guide to preparing for the physical fitness test. I have used those workouts ever since—climbing stairs with added weights to build leg strength, and pushups and weightlifting for upper-body strength. Sometimes using our actual equipment is the best workout—like pulling hose lines, throwing ladders and swinging an ax.

Ever burned? No, but I did sustain two back injuries—from lifting in difficult spaces—that required a couple of months of physical therapy and restricted duty each time.

The toughest 911 calls: Suicides, especially when the person had PTSD and was former military. Those are hard. You wonder about their experiences and the mental-health treatment they received. Another difficult call that sticks with me involved a 20-something guy who was driving home on the GW Parkway around 3 or 4 in the morning and went over the side, necessitating a technical (rope) rescue. He hadn’t had his seat belt on and was already deceased. He was dressed up from what was probably a night out. Really makes you see how quickly a life can change.

Preventive measures: During the summer, crews pick a neighborhood in their response area and go door-to-door, offering to do fire safety checks. We replace batteries, check smoke detectors and advise on any hazards we see. First-time renters or homeowners often don’t think to check these things themselves, and we advise tenants on their rights with regard to fire safety. The assistance is also helpful for elderly residents who can’t climb a ladder.

Oddest rescue: A woman called to report a group of eight ducklings trapped in the swimming pool of her apartment complex. We ended up corralling them into a plastic container. The mother was squawking and upset, but she followed us to a nearby pond where we released them all to safety.

Job perks: People send cards and letters. Sometimes they come by the fire station with cookies or cupcakes. If they bring their kids, we give them a tour of the equipment and let the kids see the lights and sit in the fire trucks. It’s nice to know that what we do is appreciated by the community.

Passion project: Six years ago our fire chief, James Schwartz [he is now deputy county manager], gathered the female firefighters together and asked what drew us to this field. Not one of us said we were encouraged as a child to be a firefighter, as boys often are. Camp Heat for girls grew out of that meeting. The first one was five years ago. We’ll host our fourth this summer [July 6-9] for female high school students ages 15 to 18. The camp is free, and gives them a close-up look into life as a firefighter and EMT. It takes place at the Arlington Fire Training Academy on South Taylor Street, and at Marymount University, where we stay overnight.

Girls’-eye view: Campers do an obstacle course dressed in full gear, climb the stairs in the burn building [a certified, seven-story structure at the training academy that is capable of withstanding live fire training] and then haul equipment to the top floor. They also love a game we play where they have to maneuver a 20-pound weight ball to a soccer goal using the water stream from a charged fire hose. By the end, they are so proud. They never think, going in, that they have the physical and mental strength to accomplish these tasks.

Got your back: We [female firefighters] all get along and support each other at all ranks. The camp has helped build that rapport. We work together for four straight days. With all different shifts at all different stations, you don’t necessarily get to know each other that well. The camp camaraderie gives us an opportunity to stay overnight with each other, as well as the girls, and really kind of bond.

Going forward: I teach a CERT [Community Emergency Response Team] class at the academy. One of the girls from the first year’s Camp Heat, who is now 18, will be my assistant this year. She’s been accumulating certifications in this field since she attended the camp. Another camp girl is an EMT at Northern Virginia Community College and runs a blog called MissMedic108. We keep in touch with the girls through a Facebook group. We hope that they will remember the great experiences they had—and consider the fire service as a career.

Related Stories

Categories: People