CEDAR RAPIDS — For Cedar Rapids firefighter Julie Popelka, signing up to participate in the department’s Citizens Fire Academy was the moment that changed her life.
“I had been asked over and over by friends and co-workers if I had ever considered working at the fire department, and I knew nothing about the fire department,” she said. “You know a lot of people get involved in the fire department because they have A family tie in the department, and I had none of that.”
At the time — 2001 — Popelka was working long days in a warehouse doing work that consisted mostly of heavy lifting, and though she didn’t mind the work, her curiosity about firefighting was piqued.
“So I just did the Citizens Fire Academy to see what it was all about and after that I was hooked,” she said. “It gave me a better idea of what firefighters do and a taste of what I would be signing up for.”
And that’s exactly what the citizens academy is designed to do.
Popelka completed basic EMT training and certification and tested to join the Cedar Rapids Fire Department. She was hired the following year. She is now the department’s public education specialist.
It’s been about eight years since the department hosted a Citizens Fire Academy, but one is scheduled to begin Sept. 4.
The academy’s five sessions will cover such topics as extrication, hose handling, fire suppression, search and rescue, hazardous materials and basic patient handling.
“We’re going to squeeze a lot into those five weeks, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Popelka said. “In the past, those who participated have been really glad they did it.”
The 12 spaces for this year’s 15 hours of classes are filled, Popelka said, but those interested in next year’s academy can sign up on the CRFD website. The cost is $30.
For years before the 2008 flood, the classes were offered annually and filled up quickly, Popelka said. But the flood destroyed the Central Fire Station, at 222 Third St. NW.
The department had two small academies in 2010 and 2011, but finding space for classes was challenging. The new Central Fire Station, at 713 First Ave. SE, has room.
Though firefighters are among the most beloved of first responders, Popelka said, their role in public safety and emergency response is little understood.
“Firefighters really don’t do a lot of firefighting anymore,” Popelka said. “The bulk of the calls we respond to are medical or vehicle accidents. And there are so many other things that we are involved in that I bet a lot of the public doesn’t know.”
For example, Popelka said Cedar Rapids firefighters are involved in the cleanup of hazardous materials and water rescues. An urban search and rescue team and a special operations unit can do highly technical rescues, which could involve rappelling down the side of a building.
“So we have a lot more responsibilities now than the firefighter 30 or 40 years ago had,” she said. “And all of us have to have some training in every aspect because you never really know what you’re responding to.”
WHO’s it for?
Popelka said the citizens academy will allow participants a chance to better understand the fire department and firefighters.
“In the past, we’ve had people go through the academy because they were interested in becoming a firefighter,” she said. “But we’ve also had spouses or families of firefighters and city council members participate. And that’s just great because families have a better understanding of what their loved one does on a daily basis, how physically demanding it can be and how stressful it can be, and city council members can get an idea of the demands placed on the fire department.”
And for anyone interested in becoming a firefighter, Popelka said she hopes the citizens academy is the nudge they need to take the test and see what happens.
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“It’s a great opportunity to see what it’s all about,” she said. “Being a firefighter is pretty neat. There isn’t another job like it.”
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