All in the family: Father, daughter graduate fire academy together

Billy Thompson, 47, and his daughter, Alexis, 19, both graduated from the Hill College Fire Academy last week – a first for the instructor


Matt Smith
Cleburne Times-Review, Texas

CLEBURNE, Texas — The last name tipped the instructor off, Godley resident Billy Thompson said.

"He saw two Thompsons and asked if we're related," Billy Thompson said. "I said, 'Yeah, we're father and daughter.' He said, 'Oh, never had that before so that's kind of cool.'"

"I wanted to do something to make a difference," Alexis Thompson said. "It was just a question of the military, fire fighting or being an EMT. The way this class is set up kind of helped make my decision." (Photo/Courtesy of Godley Pizza Station)

Hill College Fire Protection Technology Program Coordinator Robert Matthews confirmed the pairing as a first.

"I had one set of brothers who went through the class together," Matthews said. "I've had fathers and sons, but they were in different classes. But this is the first class I've had with a father and daughter going through the same class together."

Thompson, 47, and his daughter, Alexis Thompson, 19, graduated the fire training class together on Thursday.

Both were at the Johnson County Emergency Services District No. 1's fire training facility in Cleburne on Friday, however, with their classmates to practice fire scenarios in the facility's burn house.

"Yesterday was graduation but today is our official last day," Billy Thompson said. "We would've been out here earlier this week for this but the weather messed things up and put our hands-on training behind half a day. They didn't want us doing anything [Thursday] because we wouldn't be able to get things done here then get ready for the graduation ceremony on time so they said skip Thursday and we'll come back Friday and be done."

It's been interesting, Billy Thompson said, to view the experience through his perspective and that of his daughter, who graduated from Godley High School last year.

"It's been fun going through the class together because we had each other for support and helping out," Billy Thompson said. "One thing that surprised me is that I thought I was going to be the oldest person here. But there's another guy who's 35 and another a couple of years younger than him so there's actually a few older guys in the class. I didn't expect to see anyone close to my age. Thought it'd be younger kids and people like [Alexis] starting out in life."

Both said they took different paths in coming to the decision to enroll in the course.

"When I was a senior last year I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do until I got out," Alexis Thompson said. "At first I was thinking about going to the military but I was also interested in becoming an EMT and decided to do that instead."

Billy Thompson said the idea of becoming a firefighter had been on his mind for some time.

"Earlier in life, because of working and everything, there wasn't time to take full-time classes to go through the fire academy," Billy Thompson said. "What decided it for me, and Alexis too, was hearing about the hybrid training program Hill College has."

That program, which runs on a normal fall and spring college semester model, works well for those interested in fire fighting but who also work full time, Matthews said.

"It's a one-semester program, 16 weeks," Matthews said. "This class started in January. We call it our hybrid class because the students do their work online during the week then come to Cleburne on Saturdays for the hands-on, practical training and then a two week boot camp of hands-on training at the end of the semester."

That model worked out perfectly for he and his daughter, Billy Thompson said.

Alexis Thompson runs the family owned Godley Pizza during the week with her brother and help from their parents on nights and weekends as needed.

"And I still have a full-time job with a civil engineering firm," Billy Thompson said. "She'd do her online stuff during the day. When I got home I'd do mine then we'd sit together and study then Saturdays we'd come out here for the hands-on training. So that worked out great for both of us."

Both found the coursework and training exciting but added that they also hope to give back in some way.

"Yeah, like I said, I've always wanted to be in some aspect of fire fighting but never could work out the timing to get the education earlier on until I heard about this hybrid class," Billy Thompson said.

Alexis Thompson said she felt the same.

"I wanted to do something to make a difference," Alexis Thompson said. "It was just a question of the military, fire fighting or being an EMT. The way this class is set up kind of helped make my decision."

Once their decision was made both got to work even before the semester started.

"We both started conditioning a while ago," Billy Thompson said. "Once we decided that we were going to go through with this. I'd been going to [the Burleson Recreation Center in Burleson] off and on for the last few years but knew we both needed to be conditioned because we both knew what we were getting ourselves into.

"So we planned ahead to make sure we were definitely in shape for the Saturdays and because we knew the boot camp part was coming up and it was going to be hard. We knew we were going to be running up stairs, toting gear and wearing tanks, going through the burn house and going to be stressed. For me, I wanted to make really sure because I knew I was going to be going up against a bunch of younger kids. But, because we started conditioning early on, we both got through everything fine."

The hands-on training covers multiple aspects including the two-story burn house in which students run drills in full bunker gear in the dark to locate victims and extinguish fires.

"I was a little nervous at first the first time through," Alexis Thompson said. "But, once you get in there, it's not as bad as it looks from outside. We've been trained and know what we're doing and so you concentrate on doing your job once you're in there."

Both admit that spraying fire hoses while knocking out blazing hay bales is a lot of fun too.

As is the panoramic Cleburne view from atop the fire tower.

"It's a lot of work going up and down those stairs, but it's pretty cool and feels a lot different once you're up on top there," Billy Thompson said. "We rappelled out of it. That was fun. Coming out of the window was the hard part but after that we were good."

Billy Thompson said he's proud of his daughter but also realizes fire fighting is a dangerous business.

"She's my daughter after all so I think about that definitely, yeah," Billy Thompson said. "But, she never struggled with any part of the class. Everything has been about safety and looking out for each other. Everything's based on teamwork, looking out for each other and not leaving anyone behind so that makes me feel better.

"Her mom was worried for both of us but more her because it's fire and the industry is predominantly men. But more and more women are coming into it, more now than you used to see."

Both now look forward to taking the state certification test.

"I'm starting EMT classes soon at Hill College," Alexis Thompson said. "Then figure out whether I want to go more the EMT or fire route."

Billy Thompson said he hopes join a volunteer department initially.

"For me, being past the civil service age, which is 37 I think, I would be limited without additional EMT or paramedic training," Billy Thompson said. "So where I'll be looking at volunteer departments she'll be looking at full-time departments."

Billy Thompson said he's taken classes here and there for several years at Hill College and is on the cusp of earning his general studies associate's degree. Thompson said he plans to take EMT classes and maybe pursue a degree at a 4-year university.

"I'm thinking also of taking classes for an associates in fire technology," Billy Thompson said. "At my age it's probably smart to go the inspection route and get certified as a fire inspector. So I think that's the route I'll probably take."

Thompson joked that he's going to be 47 or whatever age anyway so he might as well do something he loves.

Matthews said the same in as much.

"It's funny cause in 2019 we got a new vice president at Hill College," Matthews said. "We were touring the school and someone told me I'd been here 20 years. 'I don't think so,' I said. But he said, 'Well, this plaque says 1999 and it has your name on it.' So I guess I have. Time flies."

Matthews encouraged anyone interested in becoming a firefighter to visit Hill College's website to learn more about the course.

"We start our next semester in fall, Aug. 24," Matthews said. "We don't do summer because we'd have to be in the burn house in August and that building does not lose heat in the summer."

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(c)2021 the Cleburne Times-Review (Cleburne, Texas)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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