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

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.

Our CFA has been a pliable program, with nothing set in stone and open to changes and improvements. I often tell our CFA participants that CFA #1 was very different from later CFA classes due to our desire to teach "what is important" and "what is important" changes on a regular basis. Each course is evaluated by the participants and their ideas and suggestions are taken very seriously and scrutinized. If a suggestion is made more than once and it is a doable option, we will try our best to incorporate it into the curriculum.

It was actually a suggestion made by a participant that now allows the participants to drive a fire engine during their CFA course. Don't panic. They are not allowed to drive the fire apparatus on city streets. They drive the engine around a vacant parking lot under the tutelage of an experienced driver/engineer. The lot has curbs and turns and is perfect for our driving. It was at the beginning of a CFA course when one participant jokingly asked our Fire Chief at the time, Bill Peterson, why the participants of the Citizens Police Academy are allowed to drive police cruisers but the CFA participants were not given the chance to drive fire engines. Not to be outdone by the Plano Police, Chief Peterson looked at me and told me to find a way to let the CFA participants drive a fire engine. Following some tough meetings with our Risk Management Director, that is exactly what they get to do! It is one of the highlights of the CFA for a good many participants.

In addition to the class lectures, our goal is to allow the participants to experience as many hands-on activities as possible. They bunk out in full protective gear. They watch and walk through a demonstration of the PFD's physical ability test. They handle a charged hose line and squirt water. They bunk out and take part in a search and rescue activity with blacked-out masks. They take part in fast-attack drills. They don a face mask and SCBA to go on air. They extinguish a fire using a fire extinguisher. They climb a 105-foot aerial ladder. They bunk out and cut apart a junker car to see all that is involved in extricating a crash victim. They watch a landing and takeoff and get a tour of our medical air helicopter service, CareFlite. The hands-on portions of the class are consistently the favorite parts.

Behind the Scenes Work is Necesary

Administratively, there are several tasks that have to be completed before the course begins. Applications must be gathered, dates and a syllabus set, presenters confirmed and the room booked. Binders and nametags are put together for each participant and a confirmation letter is sent out. Class t-shirts and ball caps are ordered and the paperwork for background checks must be organized and notarized. Digital photos of each participant are taken and, along with a questionnaire, are used to compile a class roster. The class roster is used so the participants and the hosts can all get to know one another. A class roster is also sent to each of our fire stations so that our field personnel can know a little about the citizens who are so eager to learn about the fire department.

During the 10 weeks of the course, PFD CFA participants are allowed to and encouraged to spend time at the Plano fire stations riding with crews on emergency calls. This is a part of the CFA that some other fire departments may choose not to offer. Criminal history checks are completed on each CFA participant and we provide and go over an extensive list of "dos and don'ts" with the class before any ride outs are scheduled. Our station personnel all receive the same list so they will know what is allowed during the time at the stations and the ride outs.

Even with all the preparation, situations do arise that, at the time, seemed serious but now, in hindsight, seem funny - since nobody got hurt! One CFA participant signed up for a ride out at a certain station and ended up falling asleep in the dayroom and was not noticed until the next morning. One unsuspecting CFA participant fell asleep at the station only to awaken and find his fingernails painted with bright white correction liquid. Later he found digital proof of his experience on his camera! Oh, the poor unsuspecting citizen visiting the fire station. Thank heaven he not only was a good sport, but he seemed to enjoy the camaraderie.

Despite the occasional Liquid Paper incident, the benefits to our citizens and to the Plano Fire Department from the Citizens Fire Academy have been endless. Each graduate becomes an ambassador of the fire department to every friend, family member, and coworker. When the fire department is in the news our CFA graduates can help these people understand taxes, bond elections and capital improvement plans. These graduates are the fire department's deputy fire safety educators as they help explain to friends and family the importance of having working smoke alarms in the home and why it is vital that they know where the closest fire extinguisher is to their work area.

The graduates of the PFD's CFA are encouraged to join the alumni organization, Plano Fire Rescue Associates, Inc. This group is a 501-c3 organization that supports the PFD through volunteering and fundraising. They are a great asset.

If you are looking for a program to highlight the greatness of your department, a Citizens Fire Academy may be just the right thing. Just hide all the Liquid Paper!


Peggy Harrell is the Fire Safety Education Coordinator for the Plano Fire Department in Plano, Texas. She is the recipient of the 2006 Safety Education Hero Award sponsored by the Home Safety Council and the Congressional Fire Service Institute. She can be reached at peggyha@plano.gov

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