Fire academy

Fire Prevention Education Specialist Katie Caler (right) will lead the program with Education Officer Erin Stehle (left).

Following the 1995 launch of the Community Police Academy, the Harrisonburg Fire Department saw a large interest in educating locals. The department will launch a free 7-week community fire academy that begins May 7 and runs through June 18. The academy’s creation is also in response to inquiries from citizens who wanted to gain experience in the field and learn how the department functions. 

The class will be held every Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. at the main fire station on Maryland Avenue. Participants will work with fire department staff from different fields of expertise each week, learning how to create a proper fire escape plan and seeing where tax dollars are put toward in the department and why. Public Education Officer Erin Stehle will lead the classes along with Fire Prevention Education Specialist Katie Caler. 

Stehle expects about 25 citizens to be chosen after applications are submitted. While there may not be much competition, the applications are mainly to show the staff that candidates have a strong interest in the program. Applications are open to anyone in the the Shenandoah Valley. However, priority will go to Harrisonburg residents. The deadline to apply for the program is April 5 at 5 p.m.

“We want to give people the information to empower them to make safe choices, to make the best decisions for their family,” Caler said. “We want to make sure people are aware of safety, and we can help them apply it to their lives. It’s very easy to think about something and think, ‘This will never happen in my life.’ We want people to be aware things can happen when you don’t expect them to.”

While there’s been a citizen academy and a community police academy in Harrisonburg for the past few years, the fire department hopes to add its own educational outreach program to help residents connect to department staff and gain insight to its work. 

“I think the best type of interaction is a personal interaction,” Stehle said. “When we go on calls, you’re right there in the house, but it’s always a chaotic situation. The fact that this is on our terms and it’s an educational outreach opportunity, I think everyone will benefit from it. We’ll get to understand from the community what are their needs and they’ll understand why we do business the way that we do.”

The citizen academy offers experience in multiple government departments in Harrisonburg, such as public works, the treasury and the fire department. According to Harrisonburg Fire Chief Ian Bennett, participants in the citizen academy wanted to learn more about fire safety and regulations to gain involvement within the field. The staff also believes its outreach was mainly toward children in schools, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts and wasn’t necessarily getting through to all the parents and adults in the community.

“I hope they get a better understanding of how the department operates and how we do business,” Bennett said. “I think it’s interesting to see how the government works and to see how the tax dollars are being spent, so hopefully we’ll generate more interest in the fire department, and they’ll see how we operate.”

Participants will become familiar with positions such as fire chief, deputy chief and the fire marshal’s office in order to connect with the officials and know who they can reach out to in different situations. They’ll also receive training on the proper use of a fire extinguisher and apply what they learn on the fire department’s Bullex system, which simulates an actual fire.

“This is a really awesome opportunity for residents to see what the department does in a more in-depth way because their interactions with the fire department isn’t anything really besides seeing us drive down the road or having us check their smoke alarms or an emergency call,” Caler said. “We have a lot of interactions with our school children but not so much with our residents who are taxpayers and who are living in the city.”

In addition, there will be lessons about EMS calls and a representation of the differences between fire engine operations and tower/ladder truck operations to know why each vehicle is bought for and used by the department. Closer to the end of the course, participants will have the opportunity to go for a ride-along with the fire department staff to see what they encounter on a daily basis. The goal of the program is for members to leave with a general knowledge of the fire station, staff and ways they operate throughout the city. 

“We always enjoy these opportunities because we want people to learn a lot about not only the fire department but the fire safety aspect, how they can keep their loved ones safe,” Stehle said. “We’re really just hoping to get out that information further, to save lives, because that’s our mission.”               

Contact Bridget Murphy at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.