04FireAcademy

While doing research for a recent column titled “Racial Diversity in the Fayetteville Fire Department: The Rest of the Story,” I gained a far more detailed understanding of the Cumberland County Schools Fire Academy. What follows is some of that detailed understanding, coupled with my profound respect and appreciation for this effort.

The Academy is conducted at E.E. Smith High School but is open to students from high schools throughout the county. A line from the Academy Handbook’s welcome letter states the program vision with clarity: “The goal is to help our students in preparing for post-secondary education which will lead to a career in the Fire Service and produce competitive employees for the 21st-century global job market.” 

Under “Mission,” in part, the handbook states: “The curriculum in this course of study introduces students to varied careers in the Fire Service, assists students in identifying their interests and aptitudes, and provides them with the knowledge and skills necessary for post-secondary education leading to jobs in these careers.”

Starting in ninth grade, students spend a half-day, five days a week, engaged in course work, field trips and hands-on training that very substantially move them toward satisfying requirements for a career in firefighting. Those students who complete the first three years of the four-year program are eligible to study in a Fire Science program at Fayetteville Technical Community College during their senior year of high school and earn college credits along with additional necessary certifications required for employment in firefighting. 

This path can lead to an associate degree from FTCC, followed by a baccalaureate degree through Fayetteville State University. All of this is made possible through a unique partnership between FTCC, FSU, Western Carolina University, The City of Fayetteville Fire Department, Cumberland County Fire Department, Fort Bragg and E.E. Smith
High School. 

Patricia Strahan, Director of the Cumberland County Schools Fire Academy, is a veteran of over 30 years in the Fire Service. When talking about the academy, she explained the academics and related requirements but moved with passion to another point of emphasis. She talked about leading students to see the importance of helping others and then knowing the satisfaction, the joy, which comes with helping others. 

This is an endeavor that addresses the whole person. The “whole person” approach is reflected in having a dress code, requiring parental involvement and employing rules that are stated and enforced. Students in 10th through 12th grades are required to complete a minimum of 50 community service hours per year. There is an Advisory Board made up of educators, representatives of partner organizations, fire service professionals, Academy participants and a parent. 

Those are some of the key details of the Academy. I find it to be a program of immense worth that provides a tremendous opportunity for students to enter and excel in a profession (firefighting) that is critical to our society. Yes, I was encouraged by the details. But I was even more encouraged and hopeful after spending time with several of the students in this program. Following is some of what I experienced that prompted this encouragement and hopefulness regarding young people and the future of
our country.

My first interaction with students from the academy came when I went to the Fayetteville Fire Department’s Fire Training Center on Radar Road. A group of students was learning how to exit a building through a window when fire conditions dictate such an escape. 

I watched as these young people received instructions and, to a person, resolutely prepared to execute the maneuver that day … not at some point in the future. That same day, I talked with four young men about their reasons for being in the academy. 

They were Ethan Bolger, Daiyvon Harvey, Elijah Beyer and Daniel Stedman. 

A friend of Ethan’s who knew Ethan wanted to be a firefighter told him the academy would help him achieve that dream. Daiyvon always wanted to be a firefighter and was attracted by a desire to help others. Elijah will be a third-generation firefighter. Daniel said his father is a firefighter who loves what he does. Without Daniel feeling pressured, his father’s love of his profession inspired Daniel. 

Like others in the program, commitment to and love of what they have chosen as a life work shine in these young men. Daiyvon closed our discussion by explaining that some students don’t have good family situations, but those in the academy are like a wonderful family. He said, “We have one another’s back.”

On another day, I visited the Academy space at E.E. Smith and talked with a larger group of students. I heard much of the same excitement, a sense of having found their place, a level of commitment and pure desire for achievement that is rare in our time. 

The conversation turned to the question of why there are so few women firefighters. Along with others, Celia Casiano and Yakira Sexton talked passionately about the importance of a right attitude for taking on and succeeding at what is difficult in life. I was amazed by the civility and thoughtfulness demonstrated in that discussion. 

This is only an overview of what was, for me, a tremendously encouraging and hope-inspiring experience. These young people have great promise and, if they can navigate the destructive forces of our world, will help us find our way to being a far better nation and world. 

Photo: The Academy is conducted at E.E. Smith High School but is open to students from high schools throughout the county.

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