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Tomorrow's Firefighters Today

Pee Wee Academy targets children; teaches safety and prevention.

Like so many facets of knowledge, the real starting point is in the home and family. That is particularly true when it comes to safety and fire prevention.

"The most important job of a firefighter is to stop fires from starting," said Richard Sisler, public education officer, Alexandria Fire Department, to 28 children attending the second annual Pee Wee Academy.

Patterned after the adult version, Citizens Academy, it is the department's vehicle to get young school-age children, grades one to five, into active participation in preventing household fires.

"Education is the most important element of the program," said Sisler, who started the program last year with The Campagna Summer Program.

"We scheduled two weeks this year working with the various recreation centers and programs throughout the city," he said. "We had intended to work with a different group each day, but we only had three children participate the first week."

Last week groups from various programs under the aegis of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities reported to the department's Lee Center Training Center for two hours of hands-on fire-prevention education. There will be two additional days on Aug. 7-8, according to Sisler.

"I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from Parks and Recreation," he said. "So far this year we have trained about 125 children. The main purpose is to teach fire and life safety. Then they can go home and teach everyone else in their family."

LAST FRIDAY children from the Ben Brenman Summer Park Playground on Duke Street proved there is no greater force than a child's curiosity in navigating the learning curve. From the classroom session with The Hazard House to donning firefighter gear and aiming a working fire hose at a safety cone, their enthusiasm never flagged.

"They all like to put on the gear. And when they run the Combat Challenge, it becomes a real challenge for many of them to hold their coat off the ground, their hat on their head, and still get to the next stop on the course," Sisler said.

He also noted this is not merely an academic exercise for most of them. "When I ask how many have experienced fire in the kitchen of their home or have had their house fill with smoke because of food burning on the stove, nearly 90 percent of every group raise their hands," Sisler said.

Outside, the group was introduced to the various elements of a firefighter's gear and to what is carried on a fire truck, by firefighters John Harris, John Ashby and Steven Richmond. When Harris asked them, "What do you do in case of a fire?" they answered in a chorus, "Stay low." That is to avoid smoke inhalation.

Harris then explained each element of the firefighter's gear as Richmond put it on. He then took it all off, and the children counted out loud as they timed him in donning all the equipment as quickly as possible.

PRIOR TO HIS donning the attire, guesses about his speed had ranged from 10 seconds to two minutes. Richmond accomplished the task in 62 seconds. Then it was time for Clifford Pitt, 6, and Paola Lara, 7, to put on their pint-size gear, as the others watched in great envy.

Doris Wigglesworth, one of the recreation leaders accompanying the children, explained, "Our normal attendance on any given day at the park is about 55. But our total enrollment is 80. Those who did not come here today are in summer school." Working with Wigglesworth was Jeffrey Gaskins.

During the classroom portion of the program, Sisler utilized The Hazard House, a cutaway, three-story, miniature house, to explain all the possible fire, electrical and chemical hazards that could be found in various areas of any home. He also explained how to escape a burning building, emphasizing, "Once out of a burning building, never go back in."

AS THE CHILDREN participated in identifying the hazards, Sisler took them from the basement of The Hazard House to the bedrooms on the third level. He also implored them to be the eyes and ears of their families in preventing fires. "The way to make sure there are no fires is to make our houses safe," he told them.

Sisler hopes to expand the program next year. "Any summer program with children enrolled in first to fifth grade is more than welcome to sign up," he said. "We hope to start scheduling for next year in May. The sooner they sign up the better."