Female Hopefuls Train to Become Firefighters One Day

Edison International is partnering with the LA County Fire Department’s Women’s Fire Prep Academy to help increase diversity among its firefighting workforce.
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Stories : Safety

Female Hopefuls Train to Become Firefighters One Day

Edison International is partnering with the LA County Fire Department’s Women’s Fire Prep Academy to help increase diversity among its firefighting workforce.
Photo Credit: Elisa Ferrari
Video Credit: Joseph Foulk, Ernesto Sanchez and Roberto Lazarte

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When Patricia Sweeney, 40, was 9 years old, she attended her uncle’s funeral in Nova Scotia. A volunteer firefighter, he died while responding to a fire call. It was at that moment the Canadian native decided she too wanted to become a firefighter like her uncle one day.

“I remember feeling absolutely in awe that he gave his life,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do … but I didn’t know how.”

Soon, a move to the United States, marriage and life as a stay-at-home mom to a daughter, 7, and son, 3, would delay her dreams. But it was when her second child, a son who would have been four this year, passed away at birth, her determination to become a firefighter sprung forth once again.

“When he passed away, I thought, ‘life is too short’. I went back to my dream of becoming a firefighter one day,” said Sweeney, who is working toward a career as a firefighter paramedic. “Every step I’ve taken has been towards becoming a firefighter.”

EMT Patricia Sweeney dreams of becoming a full-time firefighter soon
EMT Patricia Sweeney dreams of becoming a full-time firefighter soon

Sweeney soon earned her EMS (Emergency Medical Services) certification and is currently an EMT with Firstmed Ambulance. She also discovered the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Women’s Fire Prep Academy and is a graduate of its second class. She recently took part in the program’s fourth class as a volunteer, joining 80 women who are all working toward one day becoming a firefighter.

For the past six weeks, these women have been practicing various firefighting drills and lessons — such as climbing a 100-foot aerial ladder and handling a 24-foot ladder and water hoses — so they can be ready for the upcoming Firefighter Trainee Exam with the county. If accepted, they will need to graduate and pass other testing requirements before becoming a probationary firefighter. And hopefully one day, a full-time firefighter in one of the county’s 174 fire stations.

Participants take part in the LACoFD's Women's Fire Prep Academy.
Participants take part in the LACoFD's Women's Fire Prep Academy.

Edison International recently partnered with the LACoFD’s Women’s Fire Prep Academy, which was founded in 2016. Edison provided a $20,000 grant to the LACoFD Foundation, part of which will help increase diversity in the county’s firefighting workforce.

“Partnering with nonprofits to increase diversity among those who are willing to serve in the firefighting workforce is a goal we are proud to support,” said Caroline Choi, Edison International and Southern California Edison senior vice president of Corporate Affairs. “And by investing in programs like the Women’s Fire Prep Academy, we can help these women support their communities.”

Beth DiRocco, 37, is a graduate of the Women’s Fire Prep Academy class 2 and is now a full-time firefighter out of LA County Fire Station No. 106 in Palos Verdes, one of the 48 female firefighters among the county’s 3,000 firefighters. At the final women’s prep academy training, she was an instructor teaching the use of firefighting tools, like saws, to the female cadets.

DiRocco’s advice to women pursuing a career in firefighting: “It’s possible. Don’t be intimidated. There is a place for everyone as long as you are willing to do the work.”

Participants learn about tools at the LACoFD's Women's Fire Prep Academy.
Participants learn about tools at the LACoFD's Women's Fire Prep Academy.

LACoFD Captain Sara Rathbun, 37, is one of the founders of the Women’s Fire Prep Academy. From its beginning, the academy has been a place for women to see that a firefighting career is possible.

Rathbun, a firefighter with the county since 2006, was a teenager when she first saw a female paramedic deputy sheriff trained in mountain search and rescue. The woman was hanging out of a helicopter during a rescue and inspired Rathbun to go into search and rescue. She has since been deployed to Japan in 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami, Nepal in 2015 and Mexico in 2017 after the earthquakes there.

“I just needed to see a woman doing the job to realize I could pursue that career too,” said Rathbun, who made the decision to pursue a firefighting career after college. “This was the mountain I wanted to climb. It’s been a long and slow road, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This is the most rewarding job on earth.” 

For more information: fire.lacounty.gov/be-a-firefighter.