When the Peters Township and North Strabane fire departments set out to host the Citizens Fire Academy, they hoped it would help their residents gain a greater understanding of all the responsibilities of a firefighter.
According to those who graduated from the six week course Nov. 20, the departments far exceeded that goal.
“This program made me realize that I had very little understanding of everything that they are responsible for,” said Melissa McGowan, 34, of Canonsburg. “All of their specialized training, all of the services they provide for the community. I can’t say enough of the gratefulness I have that we have them.”
Through six sessions, 16 participants went between the two departments for a mixture of classroom instruction and hands-on training.
Those lessons focused on what services the fire departments provide, how to handle emergencies while waiting for crews to arrive, the 911 system and demands of firefighters.
McGowan, a stay-at-home mom with four children, was drawn to the program out of an interest in how she can best keep her family safe.
“What are some practical things I can do in the event of an emergency, and more importantly, to prevent an emergency situation,” McGowan said.
Art Ingles, 62, and Becky Stalter, 66, both of Peters Township, shared McGowan’s enthusiasm for the program. Both said they came away with a renewed appreciation for the departments.
“They’re not just firefighters, they are first responders to the nth degree,” Stalter said. “These guys have such a well-oiled machine. They work together as such a brotherhood. They have a deep passion for it.”
Among the most impactful sessions for Ingles was when the class learned how firefighters extricate someone trapped in a vehicle.
The exercise took place behind Peters Township Fire Department on a rainy night. The class got to see firsthand how firefighters cut apart crashed cars to save lives, all while taking care to do as minimal damage to the vehicle as possible.
“It was pouring rain, you had all of these laymen out there in the rain learning how to use the jaws of life and these big cutting tools,” Ingles said.
The demonstration was also a highlight for Stalter.
“We were there four hours. We exceeded our time, because everyone was so into it,” Stalter said.
As much as the participants enjoyed their time in the Citizens Fire Academy, the firefighters who led the program enjoyed teaching them.
Peters Township Lt. Jordan Cramer, who organized the program along with North Strabane Cpt. Tim Liedl, described a bittersweet scene at the graduation.
“On the last night, quite a few of the graduates were emotional about the fact it was ending. They were looking forward to every Wednesday night,” Cramer said. “We were too, because we had such a good time with this group of people.”
Another goal of the program was to attract volunteers to the departments. Both departments operate with a combination of paid staff and volunteers.
Cramer said some of the participants may be able to volunteer to take on more of the departments’ administrative duties.
“We have marketing and IT needs … We’re exploring to incorporate more of a civilian role in our organization on a volunteer basis,” Cramer said.
Graduation also served as the final, seventh class for the participants, where they covered the high cancer rate among firefighters, as well as issues involving their mental health and a rising suicide rate.
All the graduates received a diploma, a polo pullover and will be getting a challenge coin.
The participants also had a surprise for the fire departments.
All 16 chipped in to present them with pressure cookers for their stations, as well as Giant Eagle gift cards.
“That’s their second home, the stations,” McGowan said. “It’s nice we were able to give them something from our class to make it a little more homey there.”
Peters Township had originally hosted a Citizens Fire Academy in 2012. Though successful, the resources required were prohibitive to continuing the program. With North Strabane as a partner, they hope to make it an annual occurrence.
If and when the opportunity comes around again, McGowan, Ingles and Stalter did not hesitate in recommending the Citizens Fire Academy to every local resident.
“Every citizen would benefit from the Citizens Fire Academy, but I would especially encourage our elected officials to attend,” McGowan said. “Our fire departments put everything on the line for the benefit of our community, and they deserve our complete support. Our elected officials can ensure they get it.”