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Only six firefighters in Fresno are women. Female chief hopes to change that with girls camp

Female fire chief hopes to inspire more women to become firefighters

Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis can count fellow female firefighters in her department on one hand. She hopes to grow that number with Fresno Fire’s first inaugural Girls Empowerment Camp on April 27, 2019 in Fresno.
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Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis can count fellow female firefighters in her department on one hand. She hopes to grow that number with Fresno Fire’s first inaugural Girls Empowerment Camp on April 27, 2019 in Fresno.

Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis can count fellow female firefighters in her department on one hand.

“There’s six of us total, including myself, out of 302,” Donis said. “We have work to do.”

That work will soon include Fresno Fire’s inaugural Girls Empowerment Camp on April 27 in Fresno, aimed at teaching girls between the ages of 14 and 18 about the fire service through hands-on experience.

Donis, who started her firefighting career more than 23 years ago, said she didn’t learn about firefighting until after college. She majored in exercise science as a student-athlete at Fresno State.

After she was introduced to firefighting and its requirements – being physically and mentally tough, disciplined, a team player, and having a good work ethic – Donis said a “light bulb went on.” She hopes the Girls Empowerment Camp does the same for others.

Girls will have the opportunity to spray water with a fire hose and use other equipment at the camp, including a chainsaw.

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A participant in a firefighting training sprays a fire hose. FRESNO FIRE DEPARTMENT Special to The Bee

Participants will rotate to different stations in groups. A female firefighter will lead activities at each station, with other firefighters on hand to help.

“No one will be there alone. … We’ll be right there along the way to encourage them and help them through it,” Donis said.

Girls will also get to watch firefighters put out a car fire and/or open up a vehicle using Jaws of Life extraction equipment.

The capacity is 50 participants. Registration can be done online at fresno.gov/fire/community-events.

‘You have to be tenacious’

Donis said she’s one of approximately 40 female fire chiefs in the country, and that about 96 percent of all U.S. firefighters since 1998 have been male.

She said she’s tried to make a difference at each level she’s been promoted to during her career.

Among the wisdom she’s gained along the way: You get to choose how to deal with adversity.

“Are you going to fold, or are you going to look for the lessons you need to learn there and press onward, and just keep at it,” she said. “And a lot of people fold – male or female – when it comes to adversity. … You have to be tenacious, and fiercely tenacious, as a female in a male-dominated profession.”

She said there’s been no special treatment along the way.

“Women have to pass the same written test, the same physical abilities test, the same promotional exams, that their counterparts do, which are typically men. … There is no easy path being a woman in a male-dominated profession. You have to believe that you have every right to be there, too, and work as hard, if not more.

“I think it’s possible for any woman, and nobody should tell anybody that they can’t do it or they haven’t been here long enough to do it. If you have a goal and you want to achieve that, don’t let anybody get in your way.”

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A participant in a firefighting training. FRESNO FIRE DEPARTMENT Special to The Bee

Bringing a girls camp to Fresno has been on Donis’ mind for a while. She said many cities have similar camps.

“I have got to do that here,” Donis told herself. “I’m the first female fire chief in 142 years. This is the fifth largest city in the state. I’ve got to do this and get this started before I retire eventually.”

Donis hopes the camp will grow to be two days long, or be held twice a year. It’s supported by numerous sponsors.

“You have to come to this profession with a servant’s heart at your core,” she said, “and if you have that, and you have the right work ethic, and the right attitude, we can train you to be a firefighter.”

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.


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