Citizens Fire Academies: The Public's Peek into the Fire Service

One unsuspecting CFA participant fell asleep at the station only to awaken and find his fingernails painted with bright white correction liquid.

In 1995 when the Plano, TX, Fire Department (PFD) developed and justified the job position of Fire Safety Education Specialist and posted the position, one of the main job functions for the about-to-be-hired employee was to coordinate the PFD's new Citizens Fire Academy (CFA).

I was one of the applicants and as I sat in the interview and was asked for my thoughts on how a Citizens Fire Academy would impact the community, I am rather certain I made something up that sounded enthusiastic while trying not to look confused. I had never heard of such a program but thought it sounded like a good idea. I was very anxious to get the job so I probably would have agreed to just about anything to get the nod.

Lucky me, I got the nod and the job and now 12 years and 27 CFA classes later, I am certain the idea was a good one. Coordinating and hosting the Plano Fire Department's Citizens Fire Academy has been a wonderful and enriching experience for me and I am positive that it has been a beneficial program for the PFD and the citizens of Plano.

First, let me give you a little background. A Citizens Fire Academy is basically a course set up to allow the citizens of a certain city, town, county, parish, etc. learn through classes and hands-on activities, how a fire department is organized and operates. CFAs are mostly geared toward adults who either live or work in a city or fire department district, but some are focused on children and some are for senior citizens. The PFD's CFA is for adults age 18 years or older who either live or work in the City of Plano. We do make exceptions for the teens in our Fire Explorer Post. They are allowed to attend the CFA once they are eligible to be a part of the Post at age 16. The PFD's CFA meets one night a week from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at our Fire Administration building in our large training auditorium. Thursday nights are the usual class night and our CFA is a 10-week long course.

While 10 weeks is what the PFD has found to be the best balance of interest and enthusiasm with topics and presenters, some very good CFA courses are as short as four weeks and some as long as 12 weeks. The length of a CFA is really dependent on what a fire department wants to share about itself with its community. For the most part, the curriculum is decided by the organizers of the CFA but it is important to know that most CFA participants are curious, educated, and oftentimes politically active citizens who will ask a lot of questions that organizers and presenters should be prepared to answer honestly and openly. If your fire department has skeletons in the closet or topics you would rather not have publicized, a CFA is not the program for your department.

While I coordinate the CFA and host the classes along with a PFD Fire Captain, each class of the course is taught by a different presenter, lecturing on his or her specialization. My co-host and I are the consistent presence each week with a rotating venue of experts from the PFD. Our class nights are usually made up of three parts; a welcome and discussion of the previous week's topic; the current night's lecture; and a hands-on activity or demonstration. Three hours may seem like a large amount of time to fill but it is actually just right when a snack break and questions to the presenter are added. The PFD conducts two CFA courses per year; one in the spring and one in the fall.

Topics that are Covered in the CFA

The topics covered in the PFD's CFA include: an overview of the Plano Fire Department; station locations and special duties; hiring and training of fire personnel; equipment, stations and apparatus; EMS; HazMat; fire scene operations; public fire and life safety education; home fire safety; fire extinguisher training; special rescue; and fire prevention and arson investigation. The curriculum changes occasionally with the addition or deletion of programs and topics. For example, following the tragedy of September 11, our fall 2001 course was cleansed of any sensitive information, including the deletion of our presentation on the Hazardous Materials Team. It was thought at the time that the less made public about the abilities of our fire department in the wake of the tragedy and the possible continued terrorist threat the better.

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