Fire department operations are often misunderstood. Both elected officials and members of the public often think they know what it’s like to be a firefighter, but do they? When they consider cutting resources from your
department or whether to build (or vote for) that next fire station,
are they using their own (often misguided) perception of our job as
their rationale and frame of reference?
What challenges is your fire department facing, and how are you
addressing them? Are you engaging the public? Are you engaging
the politicians and elected officials in your jurisdiction? For fire
departments to survive today’s challenging and dynamic environment, they must find their role in the political and social environment. For members of the public to understand what firefighters
need to be successful, they must first understand what being a firefighter actually entails. The days of being able to obtain what you
want based on emotional justifications are mostly over. You must
be able to articulate your needs in a professional, clear, and concise
fashion using data and factual information. In addition, another
way to help demonstrate and justify your needs is to show people
where you live (the fire station). Show them the resources you have
(and don’t have) and help them understand what your organization
is capable of (and not capable of) based on your current facilities,
equipment, and staffing. One of the best ways to do this is starting
a Citizen’s Fire Academy.
The Urbandale Fire Department is a suburban fire department
located in the Des Moines, Iowa, metropolitan area. Urbandale
has a population of approximately 43,000, and the fire department
coverage area is approximately 22 square miles. Like many suburban areas around the country, Urbandale has recently experienced
a steady increase in population and an associated increase in service
demand. As of this writing, the growth of the city is expected to
continue for years to come.
For many years, the Urbandale Fire Department was largely
staffed by paid-on-call personnel. However, as the demand for
service increased, the department was forced to transition to a predominantly career department that also uses part-time personnel.
We needed a way to inform our participants on how our department was actually staffed and how it is projected to be staffed in
the future. This is an issue that we have extensively discussed in
our Citizen’s Fire Academy.
CLASS DELIVERY FORMAT
We wanted to be sure that we had a solid plan in place ahead of
time. It was important to cover the essence of our job; we needed
to explain what life is like in the day of one of our employees. At
the same time, we didn’t want to bore our participants or waste
their time. To accomplish our goals, we had to be clear, concise,
and to the point. While doing this, it was important to promote
a positive social atmosphere and allow our participants to get
acquainted with each other and feel free to ask questions. We chose
to host our class on Thursday nights from 6:00 p.m. until 10:00
p.m., and the curriculum was spread out over a 10-week period.
Classes started in late March and ended in late May.
Week 1: Orientation night. During this gathering, our participants were outfitted with their own full set of turnout gear. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks were provided, and
fit tests were performed. We are fortunate to have a fixed live burn
facility in our city, and we use the facility during our academy.
Before subjecting any of our participants to live fire, they must be
properly fitted for a set of personal protective equipment (PPE)
and SCBA face piece. During this first week, we also allow for
introductions. Our staff members introduce themselves to the participants and the participants can introduce themselves to us. The
helps break the ice and promotes a friendly atmosphere. Urbandale
currently has two fire stations, and we shuttle the participants
between both and provide facility tours.
Week 2: Understanding fire department functions. During this
session, participants were introduced to the operational procedures of the department. We covered our mission statement,
core values, and general operating philosophy. Participants were
exposed to the elements of the department that they were largely
unfamiliar with. Be prepared to answer questions like: What’s
the department’s budget? Why do fire trucks respond on medical
calls? How many people are on duty? How many calls do you run
per day? Per year?
Week 3: Home fire safety and fire prevention. Do you have a fire
prevention issue in your community? What about residential fire
sprinklers? Are you advocating for their use? Do you know how
they work? These issues (and many others) are introduced during
this session. We have even prepared a visual home fire sprinkler
display to help explain their functionality. Participants were also
allowed to use dry chemical extinguishers with a prop.
Week 4: Introduction to firefighting. Many people do not understand the physical demands of the job. In this session, our participants were exposed to some of these demands. What’s it like to
move a charged hoseline? What’s it like to wear all of that protective gear? Participants were instructed on the proper donning and
doffing of PPE and spent some time operating in the ensemble.
This is quite an eye-opening experience for a novice!
Week 5: Fire department staffing and fire apparatus operations.
Departments all across the country continue to struggle with
obtaining adequate staffing levels. We should not operate like
we have 18 firefighters on the fireground when we only have six.
What are your operational capabilities based on your staffing
levels? It is important for our citizens to clearly understand what
Participants practiced using a dry chemical fire extinguisher.