The Fort Walton Beach Fire Department invited the city’s elected officials and the media to be “firefighters for a day.” Every two to four years, the department will host this type of event, with the first having been held in 2013. COVID derailed the next session that the department had prepared to do; however, last November proved to be the charm, and the department held its third program in the past 10 years. According to Fort Walton Beach Fire Chief Ken Perkins, the department has decided to hold the event every few years because of the change in elected city council members and other city staff; he also stressed the importance of keeping community leaders up to date on emerging life-saving technologies.
“As a fire chief, I believe most people have a general understanding of the role fire departments play in their community,” Perkins noted. “However, when you take the time to truly explain and share hands-on examples of all the diverse services provided, especially the tools, equipment and required training to provide those services, it never fails to produce a ‘wow moment’ for the city resident or business owner.”
According to Perkins, the event provides participants a small glimpse of what firefighters do every day, with lectures and hands-on drills. Participants learn how to wear firefighting gear, conduct searches in buildings for victims, deploy and operate hose lines and nozzles, get to work with hydraulic extrication equipment on junk cars and provide emergency medical care on full-body simulators, all “in a safe, controlled environment,” Perkins stressed.
Perkins said the fire department has always received a tremendous amount of praise from those in attendance. “Most people know what we do,” he stated. “We respond to medical calls and fires, but they don’t understand the tools and equipment, the training and everything that goes into it. We touch on a lot of that during the hands-on day.”
The FWBFD has a training facility it uses to give elected officials a better understanding of what they do daily. Firefighters teach those in attendance how to put on all the firefighting gear, including air packs. They use fake smoke to “fog up” certain areas of the training building and send in the participants with a firefighting crew to search for victims in full gear. They’re shown how to “pull lines off the truck and how to advance them, and the different types of nozzles used,” Perkins stated.
Perkins mentioned that the department has full-sized medical mannequins for the participants to practice live-saving medical procedures that firefighters sometimes have to do.
“It’s really neat to show them the difference between basic life support and what you can do versus what you can do with advanced life support,” he stated, noting there are paramedics on all fire trucks, and while FWBFD does advance life support, it does not transport.
Those in attendance are shown how to intubate, how the cardiac monitors work and how to defibrillate. Perkins discussed how the department runs a cardiac arrest exercise for the participants. As they run through the activity, the firefighters for a day are told what the various equipment costs.
“This piece of machinery you see here, this cardiac monitor defibrillator, that’s worth $35,000,” Perkins said.
Perkins points out that fire protection is expensive, from the required personnel, facilities, training, tools, equipment and fire apparatus are significant investments in the community.
“I believe it is my responsibility to ensure that when I step to the podium at a city council meeting and I request funding for resources, I am not asking those council members to make a blind decision. Hopefully, the fire department has previously educated them on the operation and cost of what’s being requested and the importance of the resource to the fire department’s mission.”
While the event takes considerable amounts of planning, Perkins noted the benefits are well worth the time and effort, but that it’s not about promoting additional funding.
“Our elected officials come away with a much better understanding of what we do and what it takes to do it,” he stressed. “I believe we have benefited financially from having a better-informed council that understands our needs, and the importance of those needs.” Perkins emphasized what a great learning experience and public relations event firefighters for a day is, but that it’s also a day filled with fun because “who wouldn’t want to put on the boots and be a firefighter for the day!”