A training program that introduces young women into a career of firefighting is beginning to show results.

The program, called Camp Ignite, has been offered for one week each of the past three summers by Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services (MFES) and puts teens through an intensive training program in the hope that some may consider firefighting as part of their future. The team of eligible teens, who range in age from 15 to 19, have to apply for the program and, with that, are shown the ropes by Mississauga firefighters in drills developed at the Garry W. Morden Centre training facility in the northwest part of the city.

Ultimately, the goal of Camp Ignite is to not only introduce the teens into a career that has been non-traditional for women but to challenge them to break through barriers in other fields that are often not considered an option.

The program is the brainchild of MFES Captain Shelli Varela, who, herself, is a history-making barrier breaker. In 1994, she was the first woman hired as a firefighter in Mississauga. She pulled from that experience to develop the program and now, after just three years, she can point to four graduates of Camp Ignite whom are on the path to firefighting careers.

“It still is the early stages, they haven’t been hired, but they are going through the process,” said Varela. “They are serious about it.”

In other words, it’s working.

“I believe it is,” says Varela. “The camp is there to show them the way, how it’s done, and we’ve accomplished a lot in a very short time.”

Sydney Deroos, 17, of Brampton was selected for Camp Ignite this year and she found that, although the experience was intense and tough at times, she welcomed the challenge and believes it has helped broadened her scope for the future. She is considering a career as a firefighter and believes the opportunity the camp provides is likely not found in many places, because of its focus on recruiting women.

“I don’t think I could have had this chance anywhere else,” Deroos said. “We really got into it, more than what I expected. It was great and I learned a lot, enough to influence my future.”

The training is intensive and goes well beyond the basics by testing the physical capabilities of the participants. Auto extrication, aerial-ladder climbing and forcible entry into buildings are all part of the process, as well as the aspects of team building, fitness and nutrition.

Camp Ignite also leads participants through a course designed to assist teen girls with exploring all of their career options, because, Varela believes, it is still important to continue to strive despite advances in gender equality in the workplace. Called Overcoming Limiting Beliefs, the course helps participants to recognize what they want, to deal with the fear of pursuing want they want, and how to push through that fear to achieve their goals.

“That is what is important about this training, it helps the teens to begin actively shaping what they want their future to look like,” said Varela. “Camp Ignite has the backdrop of firefighting and we hope they consider it as a career but whether or not it is, we want to show that something they may think is impossible for them to achieve, can be achieved. We want to show that it is possible to reframe their options and become whatever they want to be.”

In the future, Varela said she expects Camp Ignite to evolve to include more hands-on skill building, as well as increase career training aspects.

Camp Ignite applications are usually accepted in late spring each year. Follow MFES through social media and its website for updates.

Photo: A Mississauga firefighter instructs students on technique of dousing flames at Camp Ignite.

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