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At N.H. camp, participants learn about firefighting

One of four such spots in the country

CONCORD, N.H. -- A unique camp in New Hampshire is teaching women what it is like to fight fires -- from dousing them with water to wearing 100 pounds of gear.

Camp Fully Involved at the state Fire Academy is one of four such camps in the country.

Now in its inaugural year, the camp provides training for young women, ages 15-20, for careers in fire service.

Last week, 14 took the challenge.

Pam Freitas kept her cool as she and her crew advanced on a fire in a dumpster, venting the trash bin before they extinguished the blaze.

"The heat was just intense. The excitement, it was incredible!" she said.

Many of the participants carried nearly 75 percent of their body weight in the scorching sun as they practiced putting out exterior fires during one of a series of training exercises.

They wore full turnout gear -- bunker pants, rubber boots, protective hoods, helmets, jackets, masks, and air tanks -- that weighs just under 100 pounds.

The fire camps were started over the past five years in response to a growing number of women interested in fire science.

The cadets and the 20 or so volunteer instructors are from all over New England.

The women also are taught search and rescue techniques, how to gain entry into a building, rappelling, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and physical training.

"We've been running it according to fire house rules," said Jess Wyman, the camp director and a Nashua firefighter.

"Shorts must be kept knee length or longer, hair up -- we're running them by the book. They have to get used to it here," she said.

The campers wore bright yellow T-shirts printed with the Chinese proverb "Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I'll remember, involve me and I'll understand."

They were divided into four crews with individual flags.

Instructors judge each flag, and the winning group acts as color guard at the graduation ceremony.

"You're supposed to keep your water and your flag with you at all times, and if you leave it somewhere, they make you sing," said Ashley Agri, 19, of Derry.

Katlin McKechnie of Epsom heard about the camp through her local fire department, where she was training for her EMT license.

McKechnie will study pre-medicine and biology at college to become a physician's assistant before eventually entering the fire service.

She liked a maze challenge in which they put on air tanks and crawled through a darkened maze, going over obstacles they might face in a house fire.

"You get pretty gross, but it's so amazing and so much fun," McKechnie said.

Many want to become involved in the fire service as a way to help others and escape a desk job.

"Camp has created this bond, and we all have this one thing we all have in common: how much we all love and are so interested in this fire science," said Freitas, who came to camp from West Barnstable, Mass.

Wyman counted about 13 women among 10 departments in the New Hampshire fire service, out of the 2,200 full-time employees.

"They are going to come away from this having done things they may or may not ever be able to do again in their lives," Wyman said. "And to be able to offer them these opportunities is phenomenal," she added.