The best way to avoid the tragedy, heartbreak, and loss often associated with fire is to learn how to prevent its occurrence.
In Alexandria that mission falls to Richard A. Sisler, public education officer and deputy fire marshall, Alexandria Fire Department. For his success in accomplishing that goal he was recently named the 2002 recipient of the Award for Excellence in Virginia Fire and Life Safety Education.
Presented by the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, Sisler was one of eight individuals recognized at the 2003 Virginia Fire Chiefs Association's Mid-Atlantic Expo and Symposium held in Virginia Beach. Presenting the awards was State Secretary of Public Safety John W. Marshall.
"Alexandria Fire Department is very fortunate to have such support for its pro-active education program," Sisler said. "We've been doing education for years but it really didn't get the support and attention it needed until Chief [Thomas] Hawkins.
"Various people had been involved over the years. Then Chief Hawkins made a budget commitment to the position of public education officer in 1996."
Sisler started with the Alexandria department in 1986 as a firefighter. His firefighting career began in 1977 in his home area of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
"Most fire departments provide some form of education program but many do not fund it or dedicate full staff time to it as we do here," Sisler explained. "And, unfortunately, in times of budget crunch it's usually the first thing to be axed."
IN MAKING THEIR award, the association cited Sisler's accomplishments in the following endeavors:
* Developed and implemented a plan of action for a Citizen Fire Academy.
* Facilitates public fire and life safety education by using Safety House at public gatherings and through a local cable television program entitled "Fire Line."
* By delivering special safety program events for both senior citizens and school age children.
* Aided in the formation of the Alexandria Be Safe Coalition - a community involvement program educating residents and visitors about fire and life safety.
* Assists local businesses with individualized fire training.
* Participates in statewide efforts to organize educational conferences for other fire and life safety educators.
* Contributor to the Washington Council of Governments Fire Public Education Committee.
WHAT THEY DID NOT say is that Sisler personally does all the fire education teaching in a variety of venues. This is particularly true throughout Alexandria's schools.
"The immediate surrounding departments all have education programs and we work together on a regular basis. We call ourselves the Northern Virginia Life/Safety Educators," Sisler explained.
Although he was always interested in the public education side of fire prevention, even conducting an informal program back in Uniontown, Sisler got his formal training at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. and through conferences sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association.
The Academy has a special education curriculum and the association brings in education specialists to conduct in-depth seminars, according to Sisler. "These sessions enable us to take teaching ideas and techniques back to our local jurisdictions to enhance our capabilities," Sisler said.
Each year the Virginia Fire and Life Safety Coalition sponsors an educational conference. This July 31 to August 3, it will be held at the Embassy Suites Hotel on Diagonal Road in Alexandria.
"The last time we hosted this was in 1997. We had about 75 fire education specialists attended from departments throughout the eastern seaboard and midwest," he stated. Sisler will oversee this year's conference as the primary coordinator. "Our teaching staff will come from the Academy, the association, and locally."
IN ADDITION TO classroom programs on fire prevention and safety there is also the very practical experience offered to residents at the Citizen Fire Academy. It is conducted twice a year at the department's education center and at the "Burn Building" on South Payne Street.
"Each session is limited to 12 people and is concluded in the Spring and Fall of each year," Sisler explained. The next class is scheduled for April 22,24, and 26. It is open to Alexandria residents and city employees age 16 and older.
The Citizen Fire Academy gives ordinary people an opportunity to learn about the hard work and exhilaration that comes from doing fire and emergency medical service work, according to the its announcement.
What happens at the Citizen Academy? Students learn CPR, climb a 100-foot aerial ladder, operate a hose line, perform search and rescue operations, and, probably the most exhilarating, extinguishing a "live" fire.
Douglas Dobbins, a social worker with the Alexandria Office of Early Childhood Development, was a member of the Academy's first class. "I wanted to get the feel and knowledge of what a firefighter and EMT specialist actually go through. I learned a lot about the degree of danger they are exposed to every day," he revealed.
"Even though I consider myself to be in pretty good physical shape it was far more demanding than I had been anticipating. But, it gave me real insight what to do both at home and in my work place in an emergency situation. It has been particularly helpful now since I'm in charge of developing our emergency preparedness plan for the department," Dobbins exclaimed.
Susan and Mort Rumberg were also members of that inaugural class in 2001. She is a member of the Alexandria Human Rights Commission and he volunteers for various city endeavors. "It really opened our eyes as to the dedication and expertise of our fire department," she said.
"The Academy is an extraordinary program put together by exceptional professionals. We wish more people knew about it so they also could experience it," they agreed. "It's a real educational experience."
THERE ARE A series of community outreach events conducted each year under the aegis of the Fire and Life Safety Education Program. They include: Fire Prevention Week in October; EMS Week in May; and Building Safety Week in April. These are supplemented with fire prevention education at a myriad City events.
Perhaps one of the most critical elements of Sisler's activities is the "Juvenile Fire Starter Intervention Program." As stated on the department's web page, "Curiosity about fire is a part of every child's growing process, especially between the ages of two and eight.
"When fascination and fire play turn to repeated intentional fire setting the probability is high that these children may have accompanying psychological problems."
However, "research shows that approximately 50 percent of fires set by children are set out of curiosity or ignorance not out of malicious intent," according to program statistics.
In order to make the point about the inherent danger between small children and fire fascination, Sisler keeps a small, half burned, plastic toy helicopter on the bookcase in his office at the Lee Center. When asked why it was there he explained:
"I had a juvenile one time playing with matches in a closet in an apartment building. Luckily the babysitter smelled smoke and called the fire department. We found him in the closet with the helicopter burning. A few more minutes, he and the whole apartment building could have gone up."
The child was four years old. The only damage was to the helicopter which now rests as a silent reminder to the mission of Fire Education and Life Safety: "Enhance the quality of life through prevention, education, and community involvement."