Crafton Hills Fire Academy Hopes to Increase Number of Female Firefighters

The fire academy recently partnered with Edison International to provide scholarships with the goal of increasing diversity among its cadets.
Oct 17, 2018 12:25 PM ET

YUCAIPA, Calif.— Jessica Renfrow, 21, recalls a story her police officer father told her as a young girl about being called out to a burning building. The fire department hadn’t arrived yet, but a woman said her child was still inside.

Her father raced in and rescued the child, his scorched uniform evidence of the intense heat.

“I still remember that story, the respect I had for those in the fire service,” said Renfrow, a cadet in the Crafton Hills College Fire Academy in Yucaipa, Calif. At 17, she enrolled in the Redlands Emergency Services Academy. “From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a firefighter and I’ve worked toward that dream.”

As the only female cadet among her 26 fellow students, Renfrow is working toward that goal. With a required Emergency Medical Technician certification under her belt, she will complete an intense 15 weeks of in-class training and learn 68 firefighter skills — including hose, ladder and structure evolutions — before graduation in mid-December. She will also need to pass a rigorous physical exam, where the failure rate is 40 percent, before she can apply for a firefighter position.

In a recent partnership with Edison International, Crafton Hills Fire Academy is hoping to increase diversity among its cadets and help alleviate some of the financial costs of the classes, uniforms and equipment. The $25,000 grant will help provide scholarships with the intention of increasing the number of women in the fire service.

“Firefighting is about serving the community, giving back to the community,” said Mike Alder, chief of Crafton Hills Fire Academy and a former division chief with the San Bernardino City Fire Department. “The fire service should reflect the community. All communities are better served with a diverse firefighting force.”

This year, the fire academy will celebrate its 99th graduating class. Although the number of female students has been sparse over the years, nine female graduates have gone on to become full-time firefighters.

Deandra Van Houten, 26, is a graduate of Crafton Hills’ 97th fire academy and is now a full-time firefighter with the San Diego City Fire Department.

“I never saw a female firefighter before,” said Van Houten, who had originally aspired to become a teacher. But while coaching a water polo team, one of the mothers persistently suggested she consider a career as a firefighter. Eventually, she decided to check it out at a career expo.

“I immediately fell in love,” she said, noting she has no family or friends in the fire service. “I was blown away by the public service aspect, of helping others.”

Van Houten is among the 4 percent of females who make up the firefighting force across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In other areas like the police force and the military, females make up about 14 percent of the workforce nationally.

“At Edison, we are proud to support the diverse communities we serve and live in,” said Janet Clayton, senior vice president of Corporate Communications for Edison International and Southern California Edison. “Our partnership with Crafton Hills College includes scholarships to help diversify the student makeup of the fire academy, including the number of females.”

Renfrow’s day started at 5:30 a.m. with a workout and breakfast before her first class at 8 a.m. Hose drills using recycled water started at 10:30 a.m. and continued for most of the day, except for a brief break to eat lunch. Like the rest of the students, she will need to maintain an 80 percent average if she hopes to stay in the academy.

“Most people run away from an emergency situation; the fire service is trained to run toward it,” said Renfrow, noting she enjoys the camaraderie among the cadets. “I love learning and being part of the team.”

Lined up in neat rows on the back wall of the main fire academy house are the plaques from the past 98 academies. Soon, the 99th academy plaque will join the revered wall.

“It was an awesome experience,” said Van Houten, the only female in her class, of her experience at Crafton Hills.

She hopes to soon see more female firefighters: “A lot of people don’t know what they are capable of. Try something new and put yourselves out there. Females can do this job too.”

For more information: Crafton Hills Fire Academy.