CHATHAM – Unless you have direct interaction with them, the men and women who make up the town's fire and rescue service can be seen simply as figures in uniform glimpsed in parades or at the station washing fire engines. That's no longer the case for the nearly one dozen residents who recently graduated from the department's first citizens fire academy.
“These are remarkable men and women who you see as an abstraction,” said resident Stephen Daniel, who is also chair of the town's finance committee. The academy, he said, “is a wonderful opportunity to get to know them and what they are capable of.”
“It was a great experience,” added resident Tim Weller, another fire academy graduate. “It was their first year, but they did a great job.”
In the department's old station, there was no space to hold a citizens fire academy, said Captain David DePasquale, who ran the eight-week course. The new station, which has a spacious training room as well as a large equipment bay that makes it possible to demonstrate various aspects of the fire service, made it possible to finally offer the program.
“People really don't know what we do,” he said. “They see the ambulance go by or an engine go by. But when they see the equipment we have, the amount of training we go through to use the equipment, they know we're not just hanging around all night.”
The program covered the history of the department and fire sciences, emergency medical services, the ambulance, the ladder truck and pumper operations, special rescue teams such as the water, ice, dive and technical rescue teams, CPR, smoke and CO2 detectors and other aspects of the service. Participants got to use the Jaws of Life to tear apart a wrecked vehicle donated by Buckler's Auto Service and were hoisted high above the station in the bucket of the department's new quint ladder truck.
“That thing is very impressive at night when it's all lit up,” commented DePasquale, a 27-year veteran of the department.
Since this was the first time the department offered the citizens fire academy, he said he was concerned there would be enough material for eight two-and-a-half-hour programs and whether other members of the department would participate. He shouldn't have worried. Programs often ran over and more than three-quarters of the staff participated. Daniel said there were often eight to 10 members of the department at the program.
“Even if they were not presenting, they'd come and watch the show,” he said, adding that there was a “clear and obvious sense of camaraderie” among staff members.
DePasquale said his favorite part of the program was when all of the participants donned turn-out gear, including heavy breathing apparatus. “It was so eye-opening to them. That was kind of fun for us,” he said.
Both Daniel and Weller said they were impressed by the range of duties as well as the equipment staff members must know how to use.
“They are not only paramedics and EMTs, but then they have to turn around and fight the occasional fire,” said Weller. “I kind of thought the jobs were specialized, but they have to do it all, which is really amazing.”
He said he learned a lot of practical information from the program, such as the need to check fire extinguishers and CO2 monitors. He also learned about the File of Life, which both he and his wife later obtained. “It's on the fridge now,” he said.
“There was a lot of practical stuff like that I found really helpful,” said Weller.
The finance committee often deals with overtime budgets and questions about equipment purchases, Daniel said, and the program helped him understand why things can cost as much as they do and the challenges of keeping a full staff available.
“Suddenly here are the men and women we're going to spend [money] on. It becomes less abstract,” he said. Both he and his wife, Mary Beth, had previously gone through the police department's citizens academy, which he said also gave a more nuanced picture of that department's activities. “It was so compelling that when we read that the fire department was doing it, we were right in,” he said.
A dozen residents signed up for the program; one dropped out leaving size women and five men, ranging in age from their 40s to 70s, as the first fire academy class. A second class will be held next winter; it's the only time of year the department can logistically do it given the workload the rest of the year.
“It really was a positive experience,” he DePasquale said. “We're definitely going to keep it going.”