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.