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Graduates of the Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy feel the heat in the fire training facility
Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy
A Forsyth County firefighter helps a participant of the Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy to put on an air canister that will allow him to breathe normally while in the smoke-filled training building. More than a dozen participants entered the building Saturday as part of the final class. - photo by Alexander Popp

Decked out in full Firefighter protective “turnout” gear, face masks and air tanks, more than a dozen Forsyth County residents were led in groups of three or four into a blocky burnt-out metal building that was rapidly filling with smoke from a stack of pallets that sat ablaze in a corner. 

After all the doors and windows were closed and secured, each group spent minutes in the building experiencing for the first time the feel of more than 600 degrees of heat only feet away.

Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy
Firefighter Colin Halligan helps a Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy participant finish putting on his protective turnout gear before more than a dozen people entered the fire- filled training building Saturday. - photo by Alexander Popp
This was the final class of the Forsyth County Fire Department Citizens Fire Academy, and after weeks of learning about what makes a fire department run and techniques of firefighting, each graduate was given one last lesson in the form of an up-close-and-personal look at what it feels like to be on the inside of a structure on fire.

“You know I really didn’t know what to expect, in fact they really didn’t tell us what we’d be doing until we got here,” said Ray Cameron, 70, one of the academy participants. “I enjoyed it. It was fun … This is the best part of this program.”

Cameron said that he only recently moved to the county about a year ago from Gwinnett, found out about the program from a new neighbor and was immediately interested.  

“It was interesting, I’m glad these folks do what they do, but I don’t think that I could do it,” he said with a laugh.

Emergency Management Agency Specialist Rebecah Green who was partially responsible for running the class Saturday, said that throughout the class, participants have been learning a lot of practical and factual information about the department, but the graduation gives each participant the ability to literally step into the boots of a firefighter and fight a fire. 

“With all the turnout gear on, basically it’s like a lobster in boiling water,” she said, explaining that the participants spend time in the building, watching how the fire and smoke build, before putting the blaze out with a hose. 

Before the event Saturday, Forsyth County Firefighter Colin Halligan said that since 2014, county residents have been able to attend the 10-week-long class to get an insider’s glimpse into the department and see the different aspects that make up a modern-day fire department.

Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy
Participants of the Forsyth County Citizens Fire Academy enter the training burn building Saturday as part of the academy’s final class. - photo by Alexander Popp
“Essentially where their tax money is going to in the community,” Halligan said.

He said that during the class residents are shown the history of the department, the process of 911 dispatch, how the different vehicles respond and operate at incident scenes and the different specialty teams that most citizens might be unaware of like the swift water rescue or hazardous materials teams. 

“So these are all components of the fire service that you don’t see on a day-to-day basis,” Halligan said. “But they have to be available for any incidents, whether it’s in the county or other districts that might call for mutual aid.”

Beyond the learning about functions of the department, Halligan said that participants in the program get a lesson in how they can be more prepared for an emergency at home and in their daily lives. 

“We also take it a step further and offer CPR and AED training, and you never know where you’re going to need that,” he said. “So they can leave with some pretty basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency, and that may make a difference in someone’s life.”

Halligan said that through these yearly programs, they have made connections and friendships in the community that otherwise might not have been formed. Two firefighters have joined the department after attending the program in the past, he said. 

Green said that anyone interested in attending next year’s academy should lookout for the announcement of open registration online.

She said that interested participants must be older than 25, have no prior felony convictions, pass an acceptable background check and be a resident of Forsyth County.