Brett Ferrel is stepping down from his post of leading the Fairfield Fire Department’s Adopt-a-Firefighter program.
Ferrel assured The Ledger he is not retiring as one of the department’s captains. He just feels that, after his 19 years at the helm, it’s time for the young guns in the department to assume leadership roles.
Adopt-a-Firefighter refers to how schools “adopt” a group of firefighters by inviting them to give presentations on fire safety. The program is at least 20 years old, having started just before Ferrel joined the department in 2000.
Some districts might ask firefighters to come once or twice a year, but the Fairfield Community School District has them come every month beginning in October through the rest of the school year, teaching a different topic each time to the district’s second-graders.
“We feel that’s about the age when they can start comprehending what we’re saying, and take that information to their parents,” Ferrel said.
The students learn what to do if their house catches fire, such as knowing where the exits are ahead of time, knowing to touch a door to test if fire is on the other side, and knowing how to escape through a window if stairs are not an option.
“We teach them how to dial 911, and we make them learn their house address,” Ferrel said. “We talk about how they should never go back into a building that’s on fire, and to have a designated meeting place agreed upon in case of a fire. That’s important when the fire department shows up.”
Ferrel said five to 10 firefighters visit the second grade classrooms. Sometimes they will address the entire second grade in a big assembly, and other times they will visit each section separately, with one or two firefighters per class.
Libertyville Fire and Rescue conducted its own Adopt-a-Firefighter program with Libertyville Elementary School until it closed in 2017. Now the Libertyville firefighters help with the program in Fairfield.
An annual tradition in the program is to have the students color a picture of a firefighter climbing a ladder into a smoking house.
“For the first month, one of our firefighters gets his full gear on and lets the kids hear what he sounds like while talking and breathing,” Ferrel said.
The children are told to match the colors they see on the firefighter’s uniform to the crayons at their disposal. After coloring the picture, the students turn in their masterpieces and the firefighters pick the best picture from each section. The winners get to ride to school in a firetruck, which they did on June 4.
Pass the test
During the year, firefighters stress the importance of checking smoke detectors, of blowing out candles, of not overloading extension cords, and perhaps most important for curious youngsters, the danger of playing with matches. Near the end of the year, the students are tested on their knowledge. They must navigate their way out of a smoke-filled house, which they practice with the department’s smoke house.
The students must demonstrate how to roll out of bed, crawl across the floor, and feel the door with their hand. If it’s hot, they must exit through a window. They call 911 and report their house address to the dispatcher. When the students dial the phone, a firefighter really does answer the call and talk to them.
In the last week of school, the fire department holds a graduation ceremony for the students where they receive a certificate congratulating them on their accomplishment.
Ferrel said he was aware of at least two cases where second-graders suffered a fire, including one where a girl’s house caught fire while she was going through the Adopt-a-Firefighter program. She used the knowledge she learned in the program to get her sister and mother safely out of the house, for which she received a Governor’s Award.
Ferrel said the department is proud of the success of Adopt-a-Firefighter. Not only does it build friendships between firefighters and students, it has saved lives.
“We haven’t had problems with kids starting fires like some communities, so we feel the program works,” Ferrel said.