What’s new at the “Home of the U.S. Fire Service?”

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

I first traveled to the National Fire Academy sometime in 1986 to attend a course presented during Virginia State Weekend. It was the first time in my then four-year fire service career that I’d been out of Chesterfield County (Va.) for a training class and also my first time meeting other firefighters from across the Commonwealth of Virginia. (Pop Quiz: Virginia is one of four commonwealths in the US. Can you name the other three? Answers at the end of this article).

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Burton

Over the course of my 26-year career with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS department, I had many more opportunities to spend time on the NFA’s Emmitsburg, Maryland campus. I attended fourteen two-week resident courses, including my four courses in the Executive Fire Officer program, and I conducted thirty-four State Weekend deliveries as a contract instructor over a 10-year span. Suffice it to say, I knew the place well.

I recently returned to the “Home of the U.S. Fire service” for the first time in 17 years when I attended the EFO Graduate Leadership Symposium in April of this year. This is the understatement of the year, my how the place has changed! And I’d be remiss if I didn’t add for the better.

NFA Superintendent Eriks Gabliks opened the symposium with a great overview of what those changes to the campus included. The Superintendent began by highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the NFA’s operations. He noted that for just over a year, the campus had been shut down by the pandemic, but he quickly added that while the shutdown caused NFA to cancel on-campus deliveries, it didn’t stop the NFA staff from training and educating members of fire service.

The author (R) and Fire Chief (Ret.) John Senft at 2022 EFOP Graduate and Leadership Symposium

Like many educational institutions, the NFA staff began to feverishly work on developing the NFA’s ability to deliver courses online. He noted that those online force deliveries just kept getting better as the staff continued to develop their online presentation skills and that the courses they produced were well received by students.

He told symposium attendees that as of April 22nd—the first day of the symposium—about 60-percent of NFA’s course offerings had resumed being presented on campus with the goal of reaching 100-percent by the end of June 2022.

Improvements to the NFA Campus

The development and delivery of those online course deliveries were not the only things happening during the pandemic shutdown. Gabliks said that being shut down for a year provided an unexpected opportunity to get major renovations and new work on campus buildings and facilities completed more effectively and efficiently by contractors without having students and many NFA staffers on campus. He went on to highlight that work that included:

Example of resident dorm room at NFA.
  • Upgrades to the fire and life safety systems in all campus facilities with 90-percent of that work having been completed.
  • Upgrades to the HV AC systems in all campus buildings.
  • Construction of solar energy collection equipment just off campus (Back behind the big warehouse building, on the other side of the parking lot for J building). The Superintendent said those solar panels are currently forecast to provide about a $700K reduction in the NFA’s electricity costs with the goal of achieving 100-percent of the NFA’s electricity coming from solar energy.
  • Refurbishment of all classrooms and dorm rooms.
  • Upgrades to the Fire Simulation Labs (Building S).
  • Improvements to the Burn Range.
  • Upgrades at the campus Front Gate that included construction of a Welcome Center and new quarters for Campus Security at the front gate.
  • Replacement of seven slate roofs on legacy buildings. When U.S. government purchased the former St Joseph College–a Catholic college for women from 1809 until 1973—in 1979, the purchase agreement included the provision that the U.S. Fire Administration would maintain the historical characteristics of the legacy buildings, those buildings that were present when the purchase was completed.
Another view of resident dorm room at NFA.

WOW! What a remarkable story of taking lemons (The year-long shutdown of the campus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic) and turning those lemons into lemonade (Getting the NFA campus up-to-date and poised for welcoming students back to campus and ready to continue its mission of educating fire service leaders for the future).

Also, a great case study about how the leadership is an organization had its future plans ready for implementation, even though the timing might not have been right for getting started on those plans right away. Kudos to Superintendent Gabliks, all the NFA staff, and contractors for making the “Home of the U.S. Fire Service” even better than it was before.

Pop Quiz Answers: The other three Commonwealths in the U.S. are Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].