Sixteen-year-old Kailey Nenque-Cazares spent Saturday crawling through theatrical smoke and learning how to perform CPR along with 120 other girls who participated in the San Antonio Fire Department’s second #HeroLikeHer camp.

Although Kailey doesn’t want to be a firefighter, the aspiring nurse took advantage of the opportunity to develop some basic medical skills and build relationships with SAFD women role models. After all, that is the purpose of the fire department’s two-day camps — to empower girls and expose them to the firefighting profession with hands-on experience, said Woody Woodward, SAFD spokesman.

“It occurred to us that no one ever talks to our young women about being a firefighter,” he said. “We launched #HeroLikeHer not as a ‘help wanted’ sign but as a relationship tool to inspire women to think about a career that maybe they normally wouldn’t think about, whether it’s firefighting or something else.”

SAFD launched the #HeroLikeHer camps in 2019, pausing the program last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Woodward said. This year, the four weekend camps for girls ages 6-11 and 12-17 filled up within 48 hours. The first camp began Saturday at the SAFD Training Academy, with activities ranging from a house fire simulation to mass casualty medical training.

#HeroLikeHer participants simulate what it might be like on the scene of a fire by climbing over obstacles and trying to knock over the orange pylon with the fire hose.
#HeroLikeHer participants simulate what it might be like on the scene of a fire by climbing over obstacles and trying to knock over an orange traffic cone with a fire hose. Credit: Brooke Crum / San Antonio Report

Roberta Cancio, fire engineer and paramedic, said the camps are important because they give the girls the competence and confidence to go out and face whatever challenges they may meet, while also exposing them to a male-dominated field. She said she ended up joining the fire department as an emergency medical technician (EMT) almost by accident. She wanted to be a nurse but took EMT training to be “more marketable.” Cancio went through the fire academy and worked for SAFD for three years before leaving to work in an emergency room. She stayed there for three years before rejoining SAFD.

“I missed fire,” Cancio said. “I love being able to be outside and being able to help people outside of the hospital.”

Firefighter Emily Leffler worked the obstacle course intended to give the campers a “taste of what it would be like in a fire,” showing girls how to carry a fire hose and knock down a traffic cone with the spray. She said when she was young she was discouraged from pursuing a firefighting career. People told her, “That’s a guy’s job.” That’s why she believes the #HeroLikeHer camps are vital.

“It’s important to show girls that the sky’s the limit,” Leffler said. “It’s important to show them they can do this.”

For Kailey, the camp has further opened her eyes to what she can do. She recognized the need for more women leaders in the medical field when she started attending the Centers for Applied Science and Technology (CAST) Medical High School. Women guest speakers inspired her to pursue a career in medicine, and now women firefighters have shown her what else she can accomplish in life.

“I didn’t know it was a possibility for me,” she said.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.