Skip to main content

“Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Camp S.P.A.R.K.!”

Members of one of the Camp S.P.A.R.K. teams smiling seated on an LAFD aerial ladder.

There are two things one might not expect to hear at firefighter training: an empathic “YES MA’AM” when responding to leadership commands, and the deep growl of that response coming from a group of teenagers.

One might also be surprised by the fact that most of those voices are young women.

With the small percentage of firefighters who are women – less than 5% nationally, in fact – the aforementioned scenario is not typical. But that environment is exactly what Camp S.P.A.R.K. aims to make commonplace.

Camp S.P.A.R.K. changed its long-held name, “Girls Camp,” to foster a more gender-inclusive space. All are welcome to show up as their fullest selves to learn how service, professionalism, attitude, respect, and kindness (SPARK) should be applied to the fire service and life. The core of the camp’s mission is to introduce young girls to the fire service in an exciting and safe way.

The Camp S.P.A.R.K. mantra says, “If you can see it, you can be it.” The firefighting women who guide campers through each activity are paving the way for the next wave of young women to become firefighters. Teens leave the camp with increased confidence, feelings of empowerment, and a new sense of self, having tested the limits of their capabilities.

During the two-day introductory camp, teens are split up into teams and participate in a variety of interactive training exercises, from climbing a real LAFD aerial ladder into the fourth floor of a training building to practicing forcible entry with rotary saws and other power tools. Each team and every activity is monitored closely by active LAFD firefighters and paramedics, and the full first day of camp is dedicated to safety training and emergency medical services education like first-aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

For those who stick out the first, less-hands-on day, the second day is where the real action happens. Turn in any direction on LAFD Fire Station 81’s training lot, where the camp was held this year, young teens can be seen tackling a wide range of activities that are as new to the average observer as they are to the campers facing them head-on.

Lilit was a first-time camper, harnessed up and waiting her turn on the back of an LAFD fire truck. She could barely look up at the 60 feet of ladder that led to the 4th floor of an empty building that real firefighters use for structure fire and other trainings.

Visibly nervous, Lilit stepped up to the base of the ladder, hands shaking as she hooked herself in. A firefighter guided her every step of the way at the base of the ladder, and another firefighter waved from above, waiting for her at the top.

The echoes of the constant encouragement from her teammates drowned out Lilit’s quiet “I can’t do this,” and before she knew it, she had taken herself up the ladder and through the building. Her second time through required no prompting.

For 15-year LAFD Firefighter and camp instructor Tanya Crabbe, moments like what Lilit experienced are what Camp S.P.A.R.K. is all about. “Even if they don’t want to become firefighters, they feel empowered to do anything,” she expressed.

“I love this work,” Firefighter Crabbe emphasized. “It exposes young girls to different skills that break the constraints of what women are supposed to be and do.”

The first Fire Service Mini Camp was hosted by San Diego Fire and Life Safety in 1999, and the concept of providing a free, annual camp where young women could experience what a career in the fire service might be like has expanded nationwide.

Lucia, one of the camp instructors and a new LAFD recruit, led the forcible entry station. Sparks flew as she helped campers in full firefighter PPE lift and use a rotary saw to cut metal. Lucia attended the very first LAFD “Girls Camp” when she was a freshman in high school. “I feel like I can relate to how they’re feeling,” she said.

Lucia did not know that she wanted to be a firefighter until college. Years after her weekend at camp, she was reminded of the unforgettable experience and how empowered she felt training like a firefighter.

“I’m glad I got the opportunity to join the service,” she added, just before the next team of girls at the station began their team chant:

“Ah, phoenix on top, phoenix on top! Can’t stop, won’t stop, Camp S.P.A.R.K. – woo!”  

The LAFD’s Camp S.P.A.R.K. is in its ninth year and is one step on a path of youth programs, funded by the LAFD Foundation, that teens can pursue if they want to become firefighters. Learn more about other youth programs that offer students the opportunity to learn about a career in the fire service here.