January 03, 2008

Chief, firefighters benefit from Metro East classes

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — It's a long way from bucket brigades to firefighting in the 21st century.

The off-campus Fire Service Management program, offered for the first time this fall in the Metro East area by Southern Illinois University Carbondale, covers the full gamut of modern firefighting, according to William H. Fennoy, chief of the East St. Louis Fire Department and one of the class' first students. Fennoy and six others from his department represent more than one-fourth of the inaugural class – proof of how valuable he and his city believe the training is, he said.

Fennoy is far from a newcomer to the fire department. In fact, his career with the East St. Louis Fire Department dates back to 1972. He recalls with a chuckle a "cold, cold day" wearing a thin jacket during his employment testing when he climbed an aerial ladder, a test designed to gauge fear of heights.

"I'm not afraid of heights," Fennoy said. "When I got done, I was shaking but it was from the cold factor, not the fear factor."

After six years as a firefighter, Fennoy earned the lieutenant's rank and a decade later became captain. The last six years in a career spanning 35 years have been as fire chief and Fennoy said he's "grateful for every one of them."

As chief, Fennoy said his first year was "like a rollercoaster ride. And my rollercoaster hasn't stopped yet. By nature, fire service is unpredictable. All fires are different. Every day is different."

Fennoy said he's learned much the hard way, by trial and error, but he sees the instruction that he and some of his department's employees are getting now as immensely beneficial.

"After so many years in the fire department, I know a lot about fighting fires, inspections and the daily operations but when it comes down to all of the duties of being a fire chief, I admit I have some shortfalls, especially in the administrative area," Fennoy said.

After high school, Fennoy served a military stint in the Vietnam War and went right to work as a firefighter. Nowadays, he notes it's much more common for firefighters to start their careers with associate, bachelor or even master's degrees.

"I think it's important for me to do this to make myself more well-rounded and really do justice to my position," Fennoy said. "This class makes you write, especially the first course, and do the reading and the research. It's stimulated me and broadened my perspective. It makes my job a lot easier. It's also raised my confidence level to see how similar others are doing things to how I'm doing them."

"I've had a progressive and successful career and raised eight children doing a job I love," Fennoy said. "I've had the satisfaction of knowing I've made a positive contribution to the community and that's the thing that keeps me and the other firefighters going. We get the satisfaction of seeing the faces of people and knowing we've saved their lives or their property."

Fennoy said the SIUC course is "a good program for firefighters" of all levels. The city of East St. Louis is illustrating its confidence in the program by paying the entire cost for the firefighters to attend and 75 percent of the cost for Fennoy. He's footing the remainder of his bill, saying it is worth the expense for what he's gaining and that he also thinks its important that he set a good example for his department.

"I'm accomplishing what I hoped to," Fennoy said. "My confidence in my abilities is improving. My communication and technical skills are improved. I've honed many of my skills. We're sharing the knowledge and motivating others as they see how this can be done and how cost effective it is. It's important for me to motivate the firefighters under me and set an example, hopefully be an inspiration. I would like to see everyone n the East St. Louis Fire Department have a bachelor's degree in Fire Service Management. This is a win-win for everybody. It makes a safer, better educated fire department and a more efficient fire department."

The East St. Louis Fire Department has 54 firefighters on the line and four in command positions, Fennoy said. Plans call for all to eventually participate in the training. Fennoy said the contract with the union calls for annual budget allotments so about seven personnel each year can obtain their Fire Service Management bachelor's degrees from SIUC.

Fennoy said with the increased education and knowledge of his force, he's able to delegate more to his officers and his firefighters. In addition, he said there's more and more need for fire departments, particularly his, to provide some type of enhanced emergency service beyond the basic responder level. He believes a better-educated fire department is one step toward being able to give overall enhanced services.

The University's Fire Service Management program dates to the fall of 1976 and in the past 10 years, about 1,900 students have participated. Numbers are increasing as more fire departments look at university degrees in determining promotions and even new hires.

Weekend classroom instruction and online curriculum allow participants to earn their bachelor's degree in 16 months with the off-campus academic program after they complete their general classes at SIUC or elsewhere. The first East St. Louis class, hosted by the East St. Louis Education Center, began last August.

The special format allows attendance on Saturday or Sunday to enable students to participate regardless of their work schedule. The program is also cyclical, meaning students can enter at any new semester or sometimes in between and still complete the program, according to Kathleen Richey, program adviser at East St. Louis. She said each session covers five weekends, with three sessions per semester, including summers. The next session begins Saturday, Jan. 5.

Richey said this is the only downstate location for the program, which is also taught at three Chicago area locations and in Texas through SIUC.

"In the past, really the associate degree was the stopping point," Richey said. "There wasn't anywhere to go. When promotions come up for the firemen, the more education they have the better and this program is tremendously beneficial. Fire Service Management courses address various issues as they relate to the fire service industry, including labor/management relations, fiscal problems, human resource management, data interpretation, legal and governmental aspects, risk management and master planning.

"I really appreciate Chief Fennoy and the example he's setting for his department," Richey said. "It's also wonderful that the city is paying for the valuable training."

For more information about the SIUC Fire Service Management Program at East St. Louis, contact Richey at 618/482-6933 or by e-mail at krichey@siu.edu.