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Reaching the Unreachable: Beaufort Fire Department Youth Academy

After responding to residential fires and other emergencies in which a middle school child was the oldest in the home, we made reaching this age group a goal of our department, and set out by vocalizing this desire at every opportunity. Once the goals were established, the title of the class was born, "The Beaufort Fire/Rescue Youth Academy."

The City of Beaufort, SC, Fire Department has found a creative way to provide interactive fire safety education to an age group that many may feel are "unreachable" - the middle school child. While the availability of programs aimed towards this particular age group are limited, it is an age group that the fire service cannot afford to overlook, as many households today require two incomes, and with the rising costs of daycare, these "unreachable" children are those often left home alone or in charge of younger siblings.

In 2002 the City of Beaufort Fire Department made the commitment to move beyond providing fire safety awareness and towards providing fire safety education. By using a combination of programs already available, along with locally created programs, we quickly found ourselves speaking in front of many age groups and organizations on topics including fire safety and beyond.

However these programs did not seem to fit the middle school child. These are the children who are too old to be awed by the sight of fire trucks and firefighters, yet without underestimating their ability to comprehend, too young to be interested in our adult orientated programs. These are the children who are more often concerned with peer pressure and establishing their individual identity than with fire safety, and more interested in "being cool" than practicing good safety habits.

After responding to residential fires and other emergencies in which a middle school child was the oldest in the home, we made reaching this age group a goal of our department, and set out by vocalizing this desire at every opportunity. It was during a media interview with our local paper that this goal was brought to the public's attention. The article caught the eye of Beaufort Middle School's Community Liaison officer Margaret Rushton, who manages the school's Enrichment program, who then made contact with Beaufort Fire officials.

Mrs. Rushton enthusiastically invited the department to get involved and participate in this program. The idea posed a huge challenge and commitment for the department, but it was an opportunity we could not let pass, as this was a chance to "Reach the Unreachable."

The first thing that needed to be accomplished was to outline the goals of the course and what we hoped to teach:

  1. Fire prevention.
  2. An appreciation of the fire service and knowledge of what firefighters really do and experience.
  3. Basic fire science and how it plays into prevention and tactics, and why firefighters do what they do on the fireground - that there is more to putting out fire than just spraying water.
  4. Hands on experience with equipment and application of basic fireground techniques to give the students an appreciation of the knowledge and skills necessary to not only be successful on the fireground, but also have the confidence and skills to save themselves and others. Topics include: thermal imaging, search & rescue, ventilation, and salvage and overhaul to list a few.

Once the goals and the class outline (PDF) were established, the title of the class was born, "The Beaufort Fire/Rescue Youth Academy." The class, which is limited to 10 students, is taught on two consecutive days during the week and designed to build upon itself, with each class reinforcing the last. Key points are emphasized throughout the entire course such as: the leading causes of fire, leading causes of fire deaths, teamwork, communication, and knowledge of fire dynamics and how it applies to the lesson being taught.

Each class begins with a student reading a recent newspaper article of a fire death, a fire injury, or other large blaze that occurred either in South Carolina or elsewhere in the United States. The class then openly discusses the fire, how it could have started from the information provided in the article and what has been covered in class, what could have been done to prevent it, and how the victims could have survived. Students also discuss what priorities and tactics the firefighters may have used in order to combat the fire. With each class, the students provide more details to their answers as their knowledge of fire, tactics and prevention progresses. By using this approach, the students can then see first hand how the material that they learn in class is pertinent to the real word and their life. This method has also served to significantly enhance and reinforce the learning process, and with the absence of tests, this is an effective means to measure the student's learning progress.

On the last two days of the class, the students have to complete a realistic search and rescue scenario in which they must work as a team and apply all that they have learned. Our Family Safety Education House is filled with white training smoke and an infant CPR mannequin is hidden inside. The students arrive on scene in a fire truck with lights and sirens, and must formulate a plan based upon their knowledge of fire dynamics and the priorities that they have learned during the class, and then carry it out. Wearing full bunker gear and an air pack (although not breathing air from the pack), students pull an empty hose line into the "smoky" house and go to work.

Upon completion of the semester, the school holds a celebration and firefighters are on hand to provide certificates to the graduates, who upon receiving their certificate in front of the school, must recite a fire safety lesson that they have learned to the rest of the student body and faculty.

The key to this format is that the students are able to learn about fire and fire safety in their own terms, by getting hands on, by drawing their own conclusions, by using real life information, with only guidance from the firefighters. They are in essence teaching themselves the important lessons to be learned, and in turn, are teaching their peers by experience.

This program has been huge success and a very effective tool to reach this important audience. The students have an opportunity to learn valuable fire safety information in an interesting, interactive and exciting way, as well as develop the self confidence needed to handle themselves in an emergency situation and to help others. These future tax payers also develop an appreciation for the fire service, what it takes to be a firefighter, along with the problems and challenges we face.

The Beaufort Fire Department has also benefited from this program, which is now one of the most popular in the Enrichment syllabus at the Beaufort Middle school, and we have been requested to teach the class to two grades in 2007. Now not only have firefighters become popular again with this hard-to-reach group, the department's commitment to providing safety education has been recognized and reinforced within the school system.

While a program such as this does require a commitment, the opportunities are there and the potential payoff is immeasurable. If your schools do not have a program such as the Enrichment program, you can approach the science and physics teachers, the physical education teachers, intercession programs or even the school nurse about being a guest teacher in their class or during an after school program.

The fire service is constantly searching for creative ways to teach fire safety, and the school systems are searching for creative ways to teach their academics...it's a formula for a win-win situation for all!

Any questions on this program can be sent to dbyrne@beaufortfiredept.com.

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Daniel Byrne is a Lieutenant, EMT-P, with the City of Beaufort, SC, Fire Department and currently serves in the capacity of Fire Marshal, Public Education Officer and Public Information Officer for the City of Beaufort and Town of Port Royal. Daniel has been involved with the emergency services for 20 years, with the last 10 in the fire service. He is National Fire Academy Alumni and currently a volunteer with the Beaufort County EMS.

A veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps, he is a Technical Sergeant, Airport Crash Crew, with the Georgia Air National Guard Fire Protection Division.

In 2006 the City of Beaufort Fire Department was awarded the South Carolina "Richard S. Campbell Award" for excellence in public fire safety education. You can e-mail Daniel at dbyrne@beaufortfiredept.com

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