Blame it on the Chief.
Mountain View Fire Department Capt. Jenna Graham wasn’t thinking of KPIX 5, “Inside Edition” or Cheddar.com when she snapped an impromptu selfie with her colleagues in front of Truck 51, but Chief Juan Diaz’s decision to share the photo via social media certainly made those news outlets – and many others – think of her.
“I thought he would enjoy it and that a message would go out and people would like it, but I had no idea that it would go to the extent that it has,” Graham said.
The March 1 photo of Graham, paramedic Alison Costello and EMT Patty Juergens – and accompanying caption stating it commemorated the first time an all-female crew has staffed an apparatus in the department’s 145-year history – went viral, attracting interview requests for weeks. The family of a friend who works for the Santa Clara Fire Department watched one television news report about the trio in Indiana.
Costello referred to the unexpected attention as overwhelming but positive.
“I think the greatest thing about it is it’s showing girls and other women of all ages, all sizes, all shapes – anyone – that you can do this job and you can do it just as good as anyone out there,” she said.
Now the department hopes to harness some of the resulting media buzz to continue a campaign of improving diversity among its ranks.
In January 2018, Diaz established a recruitment committee with $30,000 in funding provided by the Mountain View City Council. The committee has used the money to reach out on the city, county and state level to tell the agency’s story and to explain why it’s a public employer of choice, according to Diaz.
While employment laws strictly prohibit the hiring of anyone based on gender or ethnicity, and the department employs based on ability, skills and attitude, the idea, Diaz said, is to grow the pool of applicants to reflect all backgrounds and walks of life.
“The more diversity that I bring into the department, the more our community will be able to identify with us,” he added.
Passion and purpose
The committee has already marked some success in regard to gender; two women are among the six recruits enrolled in a four-month training academy. When they complete the academy and join the department in May or June, there will be seven female firefighters among a total staff of 64.
Compare that to the year 2000, when Graham and Juergens started at the agency as the first females on the fire-suppression team. Juergens, a mother in her mid-30s at the time, took a leave of absence from her job at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory because she was uncertain about surviving her probation at the fire department.
“They can let you go at any time for not meeting the job requirements, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it,” Juergens said. “And it turned out, I made it.”
None of the three women followed a direct path from college to firefighting, but they could inspire others to do so through their participation in the NorCal First Alarm Girls Fire Camp; the free, two-day event, presented by active-duty female firefighters, teaches ninth- through 12th-grade girls skills including aerial ladder climbing, CPR and first aid, introduction to power tools and forcible entry. Graham and Juergens taught at the inaugural camp in Fremont in the fall, and Costello will take part in the next session, scheduled May 4 and 5 in Santa Clara. It’s proven an immensely popular program with a full enrollment of 50 girls and an ever-growing waitlist. Perhaps some participants will eventually pursue a career their mentors have found so rewarding.
“We love it, and we’re passionate about it,” Graham said. “In a lot of ways, this job provides us with wonderful purpose. We have amazing purpose in life.”
For more information on the NorCal First Alarm Girls Fire Camp, visit norcalfirstalarmgirlsfirecamp.com.