• David A.F. Sweet

Blazing a Trail: Citizens Wield Hoses, Use Tourniquets as They 'Play Firefighter'

By David A. F. Sweet Growing up, Joe Oriti dreamed about becoming a firefighter. Then one day, thanks to the Weekly eNews he subscribed to on the City of Lake Forest’s Lake Forest Now App, he heard about the Citizens Fire Academy. He immediately signed up for the seven-week course hosted by the Lake Forest Fire Department.

“I was elated to see this existed because it was the perfect opportunity to live my childhood dream,” said Oriti, a Lake Forest resident who operated the jaws of life to remove a car door, crawled through a pitch-dark course to bring a pretend baby to safety and more on Tuesday nights last spring.

Citizens Fire Academy student Holly Klug sees what it's like to use a hose during the seven-week course.

Started in 2014, the Citizens Fire Academy (CFA) exists so citizens and business owners in Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and Knollwood can learn about how the Lake Forest Fire Department operates and see the various activities it engages in. This year’s session was the first since 2019, as the pandemic shut down the CFA for two years.

After being sized for gear that had been retired by the department, the 17 participants (many of whom had attended the Citizens Police Academy as well) learned a broad range of skills. They took part in forcible entry, extrication (the class’s favorite event), learning how to operate a fire extinguisher and more. One part they missed: Lake Forest firefighters have shifts where they are required to work 24 hours straight.

One of those firefighters, five-year veteran Chrissy Custer, ran the academy for the first time. The chiefs approached Custer in 2020 to see if she’d be interested in taking over the program from them. She immediately said yes.

“Public education is my favorite part of the job. I’m not quiet about it,” said Custer, who noted social media publicity helped spur a record demand for CFA.

With access to the pre-pandemic curriculum, Custer implemented much of it and added new programs like CPR Training and Stop the Bleed. Those who participated in the CPR Training are now CPR certified. Stop the Bleed users learned how to operate a tourniquet and apply first aid.

“Our goal was to provide a safe, fun, and educational environment so they could see what we do every day,” Custer said. “They get to play firefighter, if you will.”

For the first time, participants agreed to join a ride along. They stayed in the engine or met up with the command vehicle to observe the firefighters at work.

“Everyone wants to see the action. They want to see a fire,” Custer said.

Breaking windows seemed to be the one item that scared everyone, even though they were all given window punches made of plastic so their hands wouldn’t get hurt.

“They were all doing some pretty crazy things,” Custer said. “The biggest challenge is making sure they are all safe.”

The minimum age for participants was 16, and the maximum age – well, there really isn’t one, which meant 82-year-old Alice Tate was able to join. A self-described life-long learner, she only missed one activity: the vehicle rescue operation.

“The opportunity to use fire extinguishers was valuable since I may have to use one someday,” Tate said. “Perhaps my favorite part of the Citizens Fire Academy was the drone demonstration; it was amazing.”

“Age did not prevent me from participating in activities. I walk over a mile most days, weather permitting.”

Participants invited family and friends for graduation, where a video presentation – including vivid shots of students wielding fire hoses – was shown. Fourteen people have already signed up for the 2023 CFA.

A corporate restructuring and turnaround advisor (“I have rescued organizations by putting out the proverbial fires that they faced”), Oriti enjoyed the program so much he applied to be a volunteer firefighter in Lake Bluff.

“This course and its exercises allowed for first-hand experiences into the tactical skills and operations in the life of a firefighter,” Oriti said. “The icing on this cake was the ride along, where I got to ride in the engine and experience my first fire, a Dodge Caliber fully engulfed in flames.

“I love to help people and solve problems, and that passion is a prerequisite for a career in firefighting.”

Custer isn’t surprised at Oriti’s interest, given what she saw. “He did great on the forcible entry and on the search and rescue. Overall, he blew me away,” she said.

The next Citizens Fire Academy will take place in Spring 2023. If you’re interested in learning more about the seven-week session or would like to sign up, please contact Chrissy Custer at stelterc@cityoflakeforest.com.


This story originally appeared in the City of Lake Forest's Winter Dialogue Newsletter.