Firefighter Academy Celebrates 20 Years

Cold Spring camp graduates 39 students

“Twenty years is a long time,” admits Dan Valentine, “but it’s also just the blink of an eye.”

It was two decades ago that the longtime member of the Cold Spring Fire Co. created the Junior Firefighter Academy, which on July 25-29 held its annual, weeklong camp with 39 Philipstown students in grades four to eight.

Valentine, 46, says the camp wasn’t a completely original idea. He modeled it after one he attended in high school as a Putnam County sheriff’s cadet; another operated by the Greenburgh Police Department, where he is an officer; and fire-prevention training he led when he was a junior at Haldane High School and already a volunteer firefighter with Cold Spring.

Although the academy wasn’t designed to recruit firefighters and other first responders, that’s what has happened over the years. Jeff Phillips, who attended the academy 16 years ago, is its first graduate to attain the rank of chief. Several of this year’s instructors also participated in the program as children. Even some parents of junior firefighters have joined.

“Most people don’t know what it’s like to be a firefighter or volunteer, but everybody who comes through that door falls in love with it,” Valentine says.

The academy had 20 participants in its inaugural year; five years later, it had to cap enrollment at 55. When the Philipstown Recreation Department opens enrollment each March, the spots usually fill within hours.

“Initially, we were academy-driven, very paramilitary, structured, rigid, with a lot of instruction,” Valentine said. Over the years, that approach has softened — in part, he thinks, because he became a parent. The curriculum is now more hands-on, with more time spent outdoors and “more of a camp-style educational atmosphere.”

The camp includes competitions among academy “squads,” rides on police boats, visits from medical helicopters, ambulances and police arson dogs, and a bus trip to the Museum of Firefighting in Hudson run by the Firefighters Association of the State of New York.

There is also skills training, from handling a hose and fire extinguisher, to CPR, first aid and navigating a trailer outfitted as a “fire-safety house.”

“We teach them kitchen safety there,” along with training that includes special effects, Valentine says. “We insert nontoxic smoke; they practice rolling out of a bed, getting on the floor, feeling for the door and crawling out or going out a window.”

Training has proven to be more than an academic exercise. “We’ve had a number of students over the years do the Heimlich maneuver on a [choking] family member,” Valentine says. “And two graduates had a fire in their house and knew what to do.”

His wish list for the academy is not extensive. “Being in the village [at the Main Street firehouse] is awesome; we’re just limited in space,” he said, with two bathrooms for as many as 60 people.

He also said life would be a bit easier if the company had its own fire-safety house; the academy borrows the trailer from the Rombout Fire Co. in Fishkill.

Although the program costs the fire company $7,000 a year to operate, it has always been free. To assist about 10 volunteer instructors, other fire companies and local, county, state and federal agencies contribute resources and staff. Residents and business provide donations.

On Friday, the Hudson Highlands Pipe Band led this year’s campers in a parade from Depot Square to the firehouse for a graduation ceremony, presentation of awards and a party on Church Street.

Photos by M. Turton

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