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Why you should attend the National Fire Academy

Beyond the top-notch education, there’s a lasting sense of fire service community that’s not replicated anywhere else


Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography

During the graduation ceremony of a two-week class at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. I was teaching, the assistant superintendent stated that only two percent of all firefighters in the United States will ever attend a class on the National Fire Academy campus in Emmitsburg. A small additional percentage will participate in courses that are offered at the state level.

This statistic jolted me because I have always felt that all firefighters should attend a class on the NFA campus at least once in their careers.

My first experience at the National Fire Academy was in 1981, when I attended a week-long arson detection course. I was a relatively new firefighter and had not always felt fully included within my department. Being at the fire academy that week, I realized I was part of something bigger. It was a turning point for me as a firefighter.

The institution had opened less than two years earlier and was not yet well known among the fire service community. It was fairly easy to get into a class back then. That is not the case anymore. Over the years, demand for attendance often exceeds the space available. In the Executive Fire Officer Program, one of my students told me that this was the third time he had tried to get into the program.

Make lifelong professional connections at the NFA

So why persevere? Why go to the trouble of traveling to a small town in Maryland for a week or two? There are plenty of other opportunities for education and professional development out there — conferences and state and regional fire schools and colleges and universities.

It’s true that the National Fire Academy is not a good fit for all firefighters at all points in their fire service lives. Even though the courses are subsidized through federal funding, which means that participants usually only pay for their food and incidentals while on campus, it is still a big commitment to take several weeks of time away from work and family to attend.

Attending a course (or a series of courses, such as the EFO program) at the National Fire Academy is often not convenient. The course content may be similar to offerings at a more local level. The social aspect of the experience can perhaps be replicated by making friends and networking connections at a fire conference.

But at no other place will all of it come together like it does in Emmitsburg. More than being a school, the National Fire Academy campus is more of a retreat setting. Fire service professionals from all types of fire departments, and from all over the world, meet equally to learn together, share experience and knowledge among themselves, and make connections that can last a lifetime.

The National Fire Academy is about commitment

Those who attend are asked to step aside from their regular lives to bond with strangers. The instructors who teach at the academy are professionals from the fire service and beyond, who likewise commit themselves to creating the best possible atmosphere for learning.

During time at the academy, students work hard, but also have fun. In my recent class, some of the students joined up to go tubing at the local ski area one night. Several new friends traveled together to New York for the weekend. A number of people spent a day exploring the nearby national battlefield at Gettysburg. Students stay up late, working on class projects, telling stories over beers at the pub, offering and receiving information and support.

At the heart of the campus is the Fallen Firefighters Memorial. It is impossible not to be moved in its presence. It is ultimately the reason why everyone is there — to advance the fire service to the point where firefighter duty deaths are a thing of the past.

NFA training is an opportunity and a responsibility

Being part of the National Fire Academy is both an opportunity and a responsibility. Most people who attend understand this.

During my recent weeks teaching on campus in the EFO program, a former student from 10 years ago approached me one evening. It was great to see him. Following his completion of the EFO program, he later retired from his fire department and is currently working for a university. He had returned to campus to help with a course development project, and I was pleased when he chose to stop by my classroom for some informal conversation with students who were just starting the EFO program.

He left after a few minutes, but then hesitated in the hallway outside the classroom. Then he came back in and laid some business cards on the table. “Tell your students they can call me if they have any questions or need anything while they are in the program.” I passed the offer along, and have no doubt that some of them will take him up on it.

That is what is unique about the National Fire Academy, that sense of inclusive community that I felt in 1981 and which still exists today. And it is why I think every firefighter would benefit from being there, if only once in a lifetime.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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