Twenty-four-hour shifts. Harrowing danger. Death-defying rescues.
Life in an agency like the Los Angeles County Fire Department is not for the faint of heart.
And while, historically, it’s been an agency that’s predominantly male, county Fire Department officials have said they’re working to change that.
One of the more significant efforts to date is the Women’s Fire Prep Academy, an annual program starting up again later this week, according to Capt. Sheila Kelliher, the department’s first female fire captain to manage its public information office.
In a recent interview, she said she did not have the exact number of female firefighters on the force, but estimated it was probably around 100.
That’s progress, as Kelliher estimated there were only about 15 or so women who were firefighters when she was recruited to join the agency in 2000. But she acknowledged there’s still work to be done in that area.
She touted the prep academy as part of the department’s Community Outreach, Recruitment, Diversity and Inclusion program, or CORDI, which oversees the Explorer Program, the Girls Fire Camp and the WFPA. The idea is to “recruit and mentor youth from underserved communities,” according to a statement on the Fire Department’s website.
“It’s truly making sure that our department represents the communities that we serve — and 50% of the population is female,” Kelliher said in a recent phone interview. “We’re a little behind on that. I think everybody’s goal that works on this (is) quality, not quantity. And you just want to make sure that people who are qualified understand that this is an option for them, and it’s a great job and it’s a great way to give back to your community.”
The women’s prep academy is six consecutive weeks of tests and preparation that start Saturday, with a sort of tryout session.
Starting the academy
The first Saturday of the academy basically tests the mental and physical mettle of the hopefuls, Kelliher said.
“It’s a really good opportunity to show up and see if it’s for you,” said Alycia Wagner, who currently works out of Fire Station 126 in Valencia, where she serves as a tillerman, the person who steers the rear wheels of a fire truck.
“When I went there … it really did prepare me for knowing or at least being able to start to understand what the job and its severity will be like,” said Wagner, who added that it helped prepare her for the academy experience, which she graduated from in 2020. “And what I mean by, ‘in its severity,’ is the amount of physically taxing work and mentally taxing work that it takes.”
Kelliher said that’s by design, as the program itself grew organically from a cadre of female firefighters.
“Basically, let’s say we have 300 individuals that try out, we take what we can handle — usually it’s around 100,” Kelliher said.
The purpose of the academy is not just to test potential applicants’ physical strength, though, Kelliher said. It’s also a way to introduce more women to the various career options the department can offer.
“Some people are really just finding out now like, ‘Hey, this would be a great idea. I think I would really like to do it,’ but they’re not in physical condition to go through the academy safely,” Kelliher said. “But they get an exposure to it and then if they do show up, and they don’t make it, they get a bunch of resources.”
In addition to being a firefighter, the academy offers an introduction for other career avenues, Kelliher said, mentioning a range of roles from a lifeguard to a heavy machinery mechanic.
The program has grown organically from about 30 or 40 applicants less than 10 years ago to the few hundred it now receives, Kelliher said, thanks in large part to the grassroots efforts from some of the female firefighters on the force who said, “Hey, this would be really cool.”
Wagner, who gained a bit of fame last month when her rescue of a trapped motorist from his flooded SUV was broadcast nationally as part of the widespread coverage of an extremely wet winter, described the academy experience as invaluable for her.
She noted that while many go through the department’s Explorer program as a youth, she didn’t have that exposure, and found the lessons she learned over the weekslong prep program helped her understand the challenges she’d later face in the department’s actual academy.
“It really did prepare me for knowing, or at least being able to start to understand, what the job and its severity will be like,” said the former college athlete, coach and professor who decided to forgo the tenure track in order to join the department after she earned her master’s degree.
Wagner was a three-time NCAA Division II indoor track and field all-American at Cal State Stanislaus prior to pursuing a career as a firefighter. But even for someone who had trained for a high level of athletic competition, the academy was tough.
“It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of dedication and physical activity,” she said, “and within that alone to compare that to just this prep program, for me, it was very different. And that reason alone makes me say it was challenging and it was difficult for me.”
Wagner noted that she didn’t come into her departmental training with much in the way of expectations, as she was the first in her family to explore being a firefighter.
“I wasn’t the kid who grew up saying, ‘Oh my God, I want to be a firefighter,’” she said.
But by the time she graduated from one of the first WFPA classes and then lived at a fire station as a member of an in-house ambulance operator, she understood why people tried so hard to be a part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, she said.
“I will say this on expectation: I can say and will say that with the expectation of the job from the experience prior,” she said, referring to her ambulance job and the academy, “it is everything and more than I ever expected it to be.”