When our boys were little, we often visited fire departments. In fact, on many vacations, we poked our heads into a fire station garage to see if we could look around. Our boys climbed into trucks, put on helmets and coats, and held the heavy tools. The boys’ eyes were wide as we toured stations and shook hands with these real-life heroes. They were awe-struck by the shiny big engines covered with chrome and lights and hoses. They listened intently as the fire fighters told them about their jobs.
Fast forward 15 years, and now I’m the one touring fire stations. I’m the one who gets to climb into trucks—but more than that, I get to ride along on calls, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. I get to wear the helmet and hold the tools—but more than that, I get a full set of turnout gear and actually use the tools. I’m the one staring wide-eyed at fire fighters as they tell us about their jobs—but more than that, I’m trying to commit to memory the details of every task I’m shown, because I know I will soon have to DO those things myself.
Such was the Citizens Fire Academy—the CFA. Run by the fire departments of Mt. Lebanon, Castle Shannon, and Dormont, the CFA is nine weeks of learning what it is to be a fire fighter. Not with lectures and demonstrations alone, but with hands-on experience. Cutting apart a car with the Jaws of Life. Donning an SCBA for search-and-rescue in a smoke-filled building (theater smoke, but still). Hydraulically ventilating a room to clear it of smoke. Climbing a 100-foot aerial ladder. Wrestling a charged fire hose. And standing in a 1,000-degree room while a fire roars in the corner and flames lick across the ceiling.
It was all incredibly interesting, often intense, and loads of fun! And being able to do these tasks was personally satisfying.
Now that it’s over, I am going to miss the weekly excitement and challenge. I’m going to miss being in situations that require me to engage my brain, my body, and all of my sense at once. I’m going to miss the folks in my platoon. And, I’m not going to lie, I’m going to miss my turnout gear—heavy and hot as that stuff was, I felt invincible and powerful in it.
But even more, I’m going to miss the fire fighters who led this program, most of whom are volunteers. They gave so many hours of their time to put the CFA together—on top of the hours they devote to training each month and whatever calls they respond to—and they all seemed happy to do so. Their passion for the job was contagious. Their eyes twinkled as they told stories of past fires and rescues. Their laughs boomed through the fire station bays. Their patience in answering our many (many, many) questions, both technical and mundane, was admirable.
Perhaps most meaningful was the welcome into their brotherhood/sisterhood for this short season. They included us in the joking and ribbing that so naturally flows within this extended family, encouraged and helped us, and celebrated our accomplishments as most of us operated well outside of our comfort zones. They earned a special spot in my heart. I’ve always looked up when a fire truck went by. But now I look extra closely to see who’s inside… and I smile when I recognize some of them.
The CFA provided a perfect mix of adventure, intellectual and physical challenge, and the satisfaction of belonging to something bigger than ourselves—if only for a couple of months. The memories of this experience will stick with me for a lifetime.