By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
Today I met a friend in fire service colleague for another “lunch and chat session” at Sokolata, one of our nice eateries in South Charleston, West Virginia. Whenever I finish one of these sit downs with Chris Collins, a lieutenant with the St. Albans (W.Va.) Fire Department whose current job is that of Fire Marshal, I come away refreshed and excited about the fire service again.
See, Chris is pretty much a “one man band” as the Fire Marshall doing fire safety inspections, code enforcement, fire investigations, and public fire and life safety education presentations. And he does all that with a level of commitment, passion, and enthusiasm that I wish I could bottle and sell!
Our original topic for today’s lunch and chat was to discuss my recent article on Fire Rescue one.com, Firefighters, you can help prevent firearms death and injury to children, where I encouraged fire service leaders to start local Be SMART for Kids Public Safety Task Forces to educate families in their communities about safe gun storage, and how Chris might get a Be SMART task force going in Saint Albans. I brought along Be SMART handout materials (e.g., bookmarks, pens, info cards and pin-on buttons) for him to share with his boss and the other public safety agencies in Saint Albans.
After we discussed Be SMART, and started enjoying our meal that had just arrived, I asked him about what he’s up to for the coming months. And as usual, what he shared blew me away! Chris said that he was working on the second edition of a First Responder Disability event that they’d previously done in August 2021.
When I asked for details, Chris said, “We developed that program to reach out to those folks who had physical or emotional challenges who might not understand or be frightened by firefighters showing up for an emergency.” He went on to say he meant folks that might be confined to a wheelchair or people who were on the autism scale as examples.
Last year’s event took place on August 6th, 2021, and had roughly 200 attendees. “We closed off a couple of blocks between “B” Street and the alley at 6th Avenue behind our fire station. We set up a couple of our fire trucks that people, especially the kids, could see and touch and get up on,” said Collins. “And we put a fog nozzle off one of the pumpers for the kids to play in and it was such a thrill of watching kids and wheelchairs getting soaked and laughing, something that they may never have experienced before.” Chris went on to say they used the fire station as a place for people to cool off as well as to dry off their children.
But another positive Chris said, in addition to the fun aspects of the event, was the opportunity to engage parents and other caregivers in conversations about how fire department personnel could interact better when responding to an emergency, where the person involved had physical or emotional challenges. “We sometimes don’t give much thought to what effect or lights and sirens might have on a child or adult who’s on the autism spectrum,” said Chris. “Or how our “take charge mentality” when we get there can affect someone who’s lost some sense of independence because they use a wheelchair, or they have hearing or vision problems.”
This year’s event is slated for August 5th, 2022, and Chris said they anticipate an even greater turnout this year. “We’ll do what we did last year, but we’re also looking at some other ideas to enhance the experience,” said Chris.