Drilling In The Desert

When the city of Tucson, AZ, signed up an architectural firm to design its $14.3 million Regional Public Safety Academy, it didn't just sit back and let civilians design the sorely needed, long-awaited training center. Planners talked with the suits, of course, but they were also smart enough to consult the uniformed: the rank-and-file members of the Tucson Fire Department.

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Backdropped by the six-story drill tower and the Sonoran Desert, fire apparatus are parked outside the fire training area's apparatus building.

The result is a cutting-edge academy that combines sophisticated design with technological innovation without forgetting the real-life, gritty needs of working firefighters. With modern equipment and facilities for hazardous materials mitigation, technical rescue instruction, driver/operator and incident command training, wildfire suppression and a host of other firefighting needs, Tucson's new site is being touted as one of the most comprehensive, high-tech fire-training facilities in the nation.

And that's not all: As local officials describe it, this impressive facility is not only meant to be learned at, but learned from - when its training grounds are opened to fire departments based outside Arizona. Training costs for visiting departments had not been determined as of press time but they are expected to be "very, very nominal," according to Tucson Fire Chief Fred Shipman.

"I think it is our philosophy to be able to share our resources and our expertise," Shipman said of the decision to make the site available to others. "And this facility has it all."

Agencies struggling to "do more with fewer training dollars" might find the Tucson academy the one-stop training shop they've been looking for, said Battalion Chief Alan Moritz, the department's training chief.

"We're going to be offering some of the most challenging training, the most current training and most diverse training available in one place," he emphasized. "For firefighter training and anything associated with that, we want to provide it."

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Firefighters practice vehicle extrication at the new Regional Public Safety Academy. In the background is undeveloped acreage that serves as a wildfire-suppression training area.


Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
The Tucson Fire Department's newest firefighters attack a car fire during a skills demonstration following their academy graduation ceremony.


Tucson's training offer is not to be confused with another project slated for the desert site the federally sponsored Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Facility (ARFF), which will train outside departments for a fee. That project, which will begin offering specialized crash/fire rescue training in the year 2000, is expected to attract paying departments from across the Southwest.

For now, there is just the academy itself - a brand-new, 158-acre facility built to train firefighters and law-enforcement officers in the rapidly growing Southern Arizona region. Located about 14 miles southeast of downtown Tucson, the regional academy represents a much-needed shot in the training arm for area public-safety professionals. For the last 30 years, local firefighters had drilled at an aging, undersized academy located in one of the largest industrial areas of the city. Police officers trained at a similarly declining, overcrowded academy built atop an old landfill.

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Firefighters advance a hoseline into "The Dragon," a natural-gas prop built by Southwest Gas Corp. for the academy. The prop puts out approximately 80 million BTUs of heat.


Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Covered with high-expansion foam, firefighters exit the academy's high-tech burn center. Built of high-carbon-content concrete to better withstand extreme temperatures, the burn room has movable interior maze walls that can be reconfigured for training purposes and doors that also permit it to be used for vehicle-storage fire training.


Both older facilities were hampered by space limitations and neighbors who were less than thrilled about smoke that drifted from suppression exercises or noise that emanated from firearms-training areas. And both were burdened with hopelessly out-of-date equipment - like the fire academy's ancient burn-room burner, whose thermostat was adjusted with a knob salvaged from someone's kitchen stove.

Dual Mission Emphasized

In contrast, the new academy (built in the midst of a cactus- and mesquite-studded desert) dominates the sunburned landscape. Some might even call it isolated, were it not for the razor-wire-wrapped world of the Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson across the street.

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
The academy's administration building houses executive offices for fire personnel on its north side; police personnel occupy offices on the south side. The first floor is dedicated to joint-use and visitor areas.

But open space is exactly what Tucson firefighters and police were looking for in 1984, when local voters approved a $15.5 million bond proposal to fund construction of the public-safety academy. And today, they have plans for much of the still-undeveloped acreage - plans that include a working fire station, a swimming pool for water-rescue training and dormitories for out-of-town trainees.

Existing construction reveals just how well designers understood their mission. From the asphalt up, architectural and engineering features repeatedly recognize the different training needs of firefighters and police officers - and treat both services as equal and autonomous. Police and fire have separate-but-equitable administrative offices, separate training areas, even separate visitor parking areas. But the academy also offers spaces where fire recruits and police recruits can train side-by-side.

At the heart of the campus is the stately administration building, a postmodern structure rendered in mocha brown and forest green. Here are housed visitors' facilities, a display hall, a cafeteria/break room and executive offices. Behind the administration building is a grassy, tree- and sculpture-lined courtyard. It is flanked by several classrooms featuring the latest in audio-visual technology, as well as facilities for computer training, video production, cable TV broadcasting and incident command/fire simulation testing. In December 1997, the courtyard held the academy's first graduation ceremony - for a fire recruit class that began its training at the old site, then helped officials move into the new one.

At the top of the courtyard is the physical training building, the site of first-aid, defense tactics and weightlifting facilities, as well as men's and women's locker rooms built for a total of 130. As with all areas jointly used by police and fire, the physical training building is supervised by representatives from both services - call it a deliberate attempt to head off territoriality at the multi-agency facility.

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Firefighters ascend an aerial ladder to the top of the six-story drill tower. The burn room is in the foreground; the high-expansion foam oozing out its doors is from an earlier training exercise.

Police training areas are located to the northeast and east sides of the property. They include an outdoor, dirt-berm firearms training area with pistol/shotgun, rifle, 180-degree and practical-combat ranges as well as an open-air K-9 training and obstacle course. Several hundred yards away is the beginning of a "situational village" that consists of a two-story mock residence and mock bar room.

The situational village is only one of several sites where fire and police recruits train together, said Tucson Police Lieutenant Kevin Mayhew, the academy's law enforcement training commander.

"Since we're going to be close to one another, we can use it to do dual practice exercises," he said. "While (fire recruits) are learning to lay a line over a fence, (police recruits) may do point control."

Both services also use the academy's southside driver training area, a nine-acre sea of asphalt with enough room for concurrent classes on defensive driving, high-speed chases and evasive maneuvering. The area features a "skid pad," with which wet-road conditions can be simulated, as well as a high-speed loop designed to bring drivers to speeds of 72 mph while still affording them plenty of track for road testing. (While driver-operator education has long been an important component of police training, the Tucson Fire Department now requires it for its employees as well. That commitment has created Arizona's only training curriculum for fire-service drivers and has earned TFD - an agency that responds to some 60,000 calls annually - one of the lowest fire-vehicle accident rates in the nation.)

"Playground For Firefighters"

The fire training area (affectionately dubbed the "playground for firefighters") is located near the center of the property. It contains a drill tower, burn building, an apparatus building large enough to house four engines and a ladder truck simultaneously, and hands-on training props that explore everything from high-angle rescue to the control of hazardous materials at railroad incidents.

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Atop the sloped-roof ventilation prop, which can be torn apart during training and easily rebuilt. Captain Ray Sayre approaches. The prop was designed by retired Tucson Fire Captain Mike Sutherland.


Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Forced-entry techniques may be practiced on a sliding-glass door, metal door and wrought-iron window bars in the forced entry prop. Tucson Fire Engineers Dan Holladay and Quirino "Q.Z." Zaragoza are shown.


Those training props arc out and around the apparatus building, not unlike the rays of a setting Arizona sun. But the semicircular arrangement was a borrowed idea, said Battalion Chief Bill Ross, a former training chief who served on, and traveled with, the academy design committee. That committee - composed of firefighters and police officers as well as architects - spent several months touring other police and fire academies in search of the best designs. And it was time well spent, Ross said.

Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Tucson Fire Engineers Quirino "Q.Z." Zaragoza puts his saw to the wrought-iron window bars of the forced entry prop. Visible in the background is the confined space pipe prop.

"The number-one thing that helped us build this was going and visiting other sites," he insisted. "That's where we could ask, 'What do you like (about your own facility)? What do you hate? What would you do differently?' We took a lot of notes."

Some of those firefighter findings showed up in brick and mortar. For example, the academy's flammable-liquids training pad is similar to one at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. Its water-filled cooling pit (located near the high-speed track) is modeled after one that tripled the life of vehicle tires at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, GA. Drinking fountains and cooling misting devices dot the fire training area - lessons learned from another desert facility, the New Mexico State Firefighters Training Academy in Socorro, NM. In addition, the Tucson campus' half-million-gallon retention pond (which stores all water used in training exercises for re-use) was also patterned after a similar system at the Socorro facility.

While the traveling design team sought out ideas nationwide, it didn't overlook experts in its own backyard. Planners visited all 17 Tucson fire stations, asking crews what features they wanted at their own academy. They got plenty of feedback.

Features developed with help (or prodding) from local firefighters include a wildfire-suppression training area and facilities for vehicle-storage fire training. TFD's hazmat team asked for (and received) a chlorine cylinder training prop, a ton cylinder prop and an area where it could practice mitigating hazmat spills.

Moreover, when retired Fire Captain Mike Sutherland submitted plans for a sloped- and flat-roof ventilation training prop that could be easily torn apart and rebuilt, architects didn't even try to improve upon his work. Today, Sutherland's ventilation prop stands between two others suggested by the department's technical rescue team: a collapsed-building training aid and a confined-space prop that includes trench-, pipe- and manhole-rescue components.

The new, activity-specific rescue props will dramatically improve technical-rescue training in southern Arizona by letting firefighters spend less time jury-rigging training sites, and more time actually practicing their skills, said Tucson Fire Battalion Chief J. Randall Ogden.

"Firefighters are pretty good scroungers and innovators," he said. "But we've been training in bits and pieces. Now we'll be able to do this better, more efficiently - and safer."

Perhaps nowhere is that better illustrated than in the burn building, where the bread-and-butter training of recruits takes place. At the old academy, training instructors were limited not only by a primitive burner but also by an unalterable concrete burn building. To prevent recruits from memorizing the tiny building's layout, they were forced to act more like furniture movers than firefighting professionals - by filling the area with thrift-store couches and other unexpected items.

Flexibility Is Paramount

In contrast, the new burn building is nothing if not flexible. Walls are constructed of high-carbon-content concrete to better withstand temperature extremes. Doors are cut a few inches short so they can remain closed even after laying a hoseline. And the layout can be easily and endlessly reconfigured via a series of movable, interior maze walls.

Keep recruits guessing in the controlled atmosphere of the burn room, and you may save lives when they're thrown into the chaos of an actual fire, Ogden stressed.

"I can't tell you how many times (during a residential search) I've been lost in closets or got into a bathroom and couldn't find my way out," he said. "That's something that recruits need to experience here, rather than at a structure fire."

And now it's something that firefighters from departments outside Arizona also can experience, along with wildland firefighting, rope rescue or any number of training opportunities, said Shipman. "We're real excited," he noted. "You can literally walk in here and walk out with a punch list of certifications."

Moreover, academy officials say that all fire departments are welcomed - whether they want to pay to have an entire recruit class trained, or simply prefer to send a few supervisors through for low-cost certifications. That's because TFD recognizes that fire departments around the nation are "all in the same boat" when it comes to training, said Moritz. The funding just isn't readily available.

"Most organizations, to get (comprehensive training), have to travel to multiple sites," he said. "Here, it's all in one 158-acre area. We were lucky to have our community provide this facility for us. Our job now is to utilize it to the best ability of the fire service. We just need to reach out beyond our own doors."

We're looking for other reports about fire training academies. If you know of an innovative or unusual fire training program, please drop us a line via fax at 516-845-7109.

Bryn Bailer is a reporter for The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and a writing consultant for the Tucson Fire Department.