Fire safety education is not limited to the school year and it's best learned as young as possible.
That is the essence of Alexandria Fire Department's "Pee Wee Fire Academy." Last week more than 300 children from first through fifth grades gained first hand knowledge on dealing with fire and emergency situations.
Conducted at the department Fire Training Academy, Nannie Lee Center, 1108 Jefferson St., in half day sessions throughout the week students learned not only how to prevent fires but how to react and help other family members in a fire or other emergency situation.
"There are several factors that make the Pee Wee Academy a unique event. First and foremost is the fun children have while participating," said Richard Sisler, public information/education officer, Alexandria Fire Department.
"We have children and staff that return year after year because they enjoy meeting the firefighters and volunteers and interacting with them. But, more importantly, this is an outstanding educational activity. The first law of firefighting is to prevent fires, " he said.
"Firefighters have a chance to meet and visit with children before an emergency occurs. They can explain to the students how lessons learned at the Academy would apply in a real-life emergency. Each element of the training allows children to learn about life saving and fire prevention in a fun way," Sisler said.
THAT ASSESSMENT was buttressed by City Councilman Ludwig P. Gaines, co-chair, Council's Citizen Corps Committee, who attended an Academy session. "I was there to show my support for what the Fire Department is doing as far as fire prevention and emergency preparedness is concerned," he said.
"The children could enjoy themselves as well as take home some very important lessons. The Academy is just one example of how our city is reaching out to all elements and age groups," Gaines said.
"One of the areas where all households in the city can benefit is to have a home emergency plan. For example, if the smoke alarm goes off what do you do? The children attending the Academy understood that and took it home with them," he said.
"I got there at 9 a.m. on Thursday and didn't leave until 1 p.m. because I was thoroughly enjoying myself," he said. Having graduated from the Alexandria Community Emergency Response Team [CERT] training program himself, Gaines strongly endorses "emergency preparedness through community involvement."
DURING EACH three hour plus Academy session throughout the week students are schooled in such things as what to do in a dense smoke situation, how to react when the smoke alarm sounds, and how to conduct fire escape drills. "This year we added a segment on emergency management geared to their level," Sisler said.
In addition to the classroom there is the interactive fun side where the approximately 50 children in each class break into groups to learn some of the practical aspects of firefighting. They don firefighter gear and participate in a "Combat Challenge."
During this time firefighters assist the students in how to aim a fire hose, rescuing dummy victims during a simulated fire exercise, crawling under a taped off area that represents a place of dense smoke, carrying a folded hose from one location to another, and proficiency in changing batteries in a smoke alarm during a timed exercise.
A critical element of the training is the development of a Home Fire Escape Plan. On a scaled diagram each student is asked to draw a floor plan or map of their home. They are then instructed to mark two ways out of each room, the location of all smoke alarms, and to pick a family meeting place outside the home "where everyone can meet" to make sure all are accounted for in a fire emergency.
In addition to members of the Alexandria Fire Department, the program is supported by the Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross, the Black Fire Service Professionals of Alexandria, and the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities.
"The Alexandria Fire Department values this program a great deal. It enhances the quality of life through preparedness, education and community development. Any summer program with children enrolled in first through fifth grade is more than welcome to sign up," Sisler said.
"We are always adding new things. I'm working on plans for next year's program now to make it even better," he said.