Correcting Misperceptions of the Fire Service

By Lance Routson

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.

Our Environment

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 we can, and cannot, do with our staffing levels. In addition, we covered the operation of fire apparatus and the associated equipment. How big are the hoselines? How do the trucks pump water to the hoselines, and how are the lines deployed? All of this was explained in this session.

Week 6: Introduction to emergency medical services. Without question, the vast majority of our calls for service involve emergency medical response. If you think about it, the capabilities of a well-trained and well-equipped emergency medical response force can be a thing of beauty. We took the time in this session to introduce our cardiac monitors, cots, splinting equipment, stair chairs, scoop stretchers, and any other equipment you would like to showcase. This was a great time to explain all of this fancy equipment to the participants.

Week 7: Introduction to technical rescue. In this session, we covered the technical rescue capabilities of our department. The Urbandale Fire Department does not have a fully equipped technician-level team, but we do have some specialized training in different areas. For example, we are trained and equipped to conduct a full low-angle rope rescue. We have also been trained in high-angle rope rescue. This evening allowed participants to rappel off of our four-story training facility under the close supervision of our staff members. We do not require our participants to rappel, but we do give all of them the chance to participate. This is often the most exciting activity of the entire academy for our participants.

Week 8: Fire prevention initiatives. We are fortunate to have an actively engaged fire marshal on staff who has created and delivered numerous fire prevention initiatives and activities. We discussed our community smoke detector installation programs, Children’s Fire Academy, code enforcement and inspection programs, and much more. Many participants were not aware of the extensive prevention efforts that are carried out on a daily basis to help keep the members of our community safe. Remember, the easiest fire to put out is the one that never starts. We used this session to inform the participants on what we are doing to keep fires from starting in the first place.

Week 9: Live fire training. In this final hands-on session, participants were invited to take part in live-fire training sessions in our burn facility. All participants were closely monitored and coached throughout the evolution. Safety is paramount here; don’t force anyone to participate if they are not comfortable. We also used this evening to display one of our most powerful demonstrations. Two burn cells were obtained and furnished with a modern fire load (recliner, sofa, carpet, etc.). One cell was outfitted with a sprinkler, and one was not. Fires were started in each cell; one fire was allowed to burn without any fire department intervention, and one cell was extinguished with a fire sprinkler. Observers were left in a state of complete surprise when they witnessed the effectiveness of the sprinkler vs. the damage of a nonsprinklered room. Talk about building support for a residential sprinkler campaign!

Week 10: Graduation and social gathering. In this wrap-up session, all participants and their families were invited to the fire station for a lunch barbecue and a social meal together. Many fire service problems are discussed and solved at the kitchen table, and the shift meal is an important time for crews to spend time together. We took the opportunity in this last session to share this experience with the participants. We also allowed them to schedule time to ride along with our responders on an actual shift. This allows them to see what is really like, in real time, to be a member of our department and respond on calls for service in our community. We also set a future date and time for participants to tour our off-site dispatch center and sign up for CPR training.

Choosing Your Instructors

Remember that the instructors you choose will be the face of your department during each session. They will represent your organization and what it stands for. At the same time, this is a chance for your staff members to get to know the participants and showcase their talents. Several of our staff members have areas of interest and areas of the job they are passionate about. We allow them to lead the session and to share their passion with the participants. One thing to remember: When conducting hands-on evolutions, be sure to schedule lead instructors as well as the necessary number of assistant instructors.

The Rewards

It is important to understand the potential benefits that can materialize as a result of hosting an academy. Through the delivery of our Citizen’s Fire Academy, we have found new ways to relate to our customers - and it has paid off. They gain a better understanding of what we do and have a better understanding of how we operate. We have been fortunate to have some of our city council members participate in the academy, including our mayor. Once we were able to provide our elected officials with a more in-depth look at our facilities, operations, and equipment, we were able to establish a greater rapport with them. As a result of this relationship, we were able to quickly obtain funding for a station expansion and remodel project that was badly needed. We were also able to clearly explain and justify our need for a third fire station. The station had been in our capital improvement plan for future consideration but, as a result of the academy, approval to build the third station will go to a public vote in November 2017 (prior to the academy, no vote was currently planned). This third fire station is essential for our department to provide the level of service we strive for and the level of service the public deserves.

There is no guarantee that hosting a Citizen’s Fire Academy will translate into major staffing and infrastructure improvements; it is essential for readers to understand that. However, this is one way we can improve relations with the members of our community and allow them to see our department and its capabilities. It is a great chance to continue to build on relationships with elected officials and elsewhere within the community. Perhaps the experience of going through the academy will allow decision makers to see things from the fire department perspective in a way that they hadn’t been able to before.

Greater Understanding

We are here to serve our customers and to help them in any way we can. Our taxpayers and elected officials deserve to know how the fire department conducts business. At the same time, they should have an understanding of the environment that we work in and the things we need to be successful and deliver the highest quality of service. Consider hosting a Citizen’s Fire Academy as a way to share information and build relationships in your community.

Lance Routson is a 16-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Urbandale (IA) Fire Department. He was the first Center for Public Safety Excellence accredited fire officer in the state of Iowa. Routson has a master’s degree in public administration from Jacksonville State University and a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Northern Iowa. He can be contacted at

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November 2017
Volume 12, Issue 11