The Emmitsburg Experience

The first time I went to the National Fire Academy was in 1981, when I had been in the fire service for just a year and a half. A surplus of federal money was available for training that year, and there were plenty of spaces in the fledgling programs at the academy. Pretty much everyone who signed up for something got to go, so of course I signed up immediately.

I spent one week in Emmitsburg that time, as a student in the now-defunct Arson Detection course. The class was aimed at line firefighters and officers with little experience in arson awareness, and it was a worthwhile class that included some good basic information and a little hands-on experience as well. I was the only woman in the class, and one of only a few women on campus at that time. Although I was treated respectfully, I definitely felt like I was in the spotlight the entire time I was there. I remember that it was an unusually warm week in the late spring, and in the afternoons I would go out walking for exercise wearing shorts. I didn't think anything of this, until one day when a somewhat sheepish guy from my class said to me, "I don't think a woman has ever worn shorts here before!"

Fast forward to 1999, when I've found myself back at Emmitsburg twice: first for a course development committee meeting, and most recently to teach Strategic Management of Change, the second year required course in the Executive Fire Officer Program. This most recent trip put me on campus for two weeks and gave me ample time to consider the changes that have happened at the fire academy in the past eighteen years.

The outright stares of 1981 are thankfully long gone, but it is still a novelty being a woman at the National Fire Academy. It seems less so when walking across the campus or eating in the dining hall: I was astounded upon returning that it seemed like there were women everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except in the fire courses. Although the representation of women has increased dramatically since the early days, proportionately few attend courses in the fire programs at NFA. (Far more are seen in FEMA-related classes, which use the same facilities.) The course I taught had no female students in it at all, and the others running concurrently had one or two at most, among twenty-plus men. Likewise, there are relatively few men or women of color attending NFA programs.

The people who run the National Fire Academy are aware of this, and in fact the problem was part of the incentive to create the new diversity course that debuted at the IAFC's Fire-Rescue International in Kansas City in August. Inclusion is valued, but tradition dies hard.

Another factor contributing to the homogeneous makeup of many classes is that, increasingly, NFA courses are aimed at senior fire officers, where women and minority men are least well represented. In order even to apply for the Executive Fire Officer Program, one must be a chief-level officer (battalion chief or above), which narrows the eligibility pool considerably. Many other courses have similar admission standards. Since NFA courses are much more in demand than they were in 1981, the academy by necessity must choose among applicants, and hierarchy of position is one criterion.

Still, opportunities exist even for firefighters to have the Emmitsburg experience. Those involved in special teams (hazmat, public education, fire prevention) can attend regardless of rank. Elective management courses may also be open to those at a variety of ranks.

The campus has undergone many changes since my first trip there. The linoleum-floored dorms with hallway bathrooms have all been updated to carpeted private rooms with private baths and other amenities such as air conditioning, in-room refrigerators, and cable television. The new wing on the main dorm, C Building, is airy and inviting, with numerous lounges and commons areas. The Learning Resource Center (LRC) has been updated to embrace the age of electronic information, and the media specialists who work there get high marks from the students. The recreation center includes a large indoor pool, exercise room, and basketball court. Bicycles and helmets, along with other sporting equipment, are available on loan. The campus pub is a favorite meeting place, with special events such as karaoke night on Wednesdays.

There is plenty to do at the National Fire Academy, even within the neighborhood of sleepy Emmitsburg -- the local Ott House tavern is still popular with students, and Gettysburg National Battlefield is only ten miles away -- but the encouraging and overwhelming impression is that most people are there primarily to learn. Many courses are very labor-intensive, with evening class meetings or assignments. For every person you see swilling beer in the pub, you will see two huddled over books in a lounge or glued to a computer screen at the LRC.

There is a professional, collegial atmosphere on the Emmitsburg campus that is not often found in day-to-day fire station life. People have fun, but they also exchange ideas, challenge each other, and learn from instruction and experience and their peers. And this is perhaps the greatest benefit of attending a residential course at the NFA: the opportunity to be part of this community of fire service professionals, and to be treated as a valued equal. I felt that way even in 1981, and I have felt that way every time I have been back.

In some ways, spending two weeks in Emmitsburg reminded me of how it feels to go to a WFS conference. You're there to learn, but learning takes many forms. You may learn as much debating an issue in the pub after class as you do studying for a test. Emmitsburg provides an excellent networking opportunity, and for many who go there, it is the first time they have ever had any direct contact with fire professionals outside their immediate geographical area. You can feel the energy that contact creates, just walking across campus.

The National Fire Academy also has a special role in WFS' history. It was during that 1981 week-long course that I met the only other woman firefighter on campus at the time, who was from Lee's Summit, Missouri. During a long conversation one night, we talked about how wonderful it would be if fire service women had a network of support. It was she who reminded me about someone named Terese Floren, who had contacted me for a survey a yearearlier. It was right after I returned from that trip to Emmitsburg that I wrote to her, and what resulted is the organization that still exists today.

To me, that is the best a national training facility can do: provide top-notch education, but more than that, create a professional community where unique connections can be made, perhaps even resulting in transformational change. Personal change was involved in that first trip, too. With just over a year on the job, I still had many doubts about my future in the fire service, and was not getting much support from people on my own department. Going to Emmitsburg allowed me to feel that I was part of something bigger, something that rose above the smaller conflicts we were dealing with at a microcosmic level. At Emmitsburg, I really felt like a firefighter, maybe for the first time in my career.

So, go to Emmitsburg. Take the time, go through the hassles of applying and getting approval, push the outside of the envelope when it comes to the required qualifications. Just go. It's not a perfect place, but I guarantee you will have a memorable experience while there. As the national center of learning for the structural fire service in the U.S., it has the potential to be the root source of much needed change for the future of the fire service, and every one of us should be part of that.

Linda Willing
Associate Editor

Copyright © 1999 Linda F. Willing.

This article originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of FireWork. It may not be reprinted without the permission of the author.




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