By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – It has been six-and-a-half months since the ribbon was cut with enormous fanfare on the ultra-modern Rhode Island State Fire Academy on the grounds of the old Ladd School.
Some firefighters are grumbling because it’s still not open. So are experts scheduled to be part of the school’s faculty.
Dignitaries including Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, State Fire Marshal John E. Chartier, State Police Superintendent Col. Steven G. O’Donnell, State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed – plus representatives of fire and police departments across the state – turned out to witness the history-making event on July 27.
Chartier adamantly defends the academy’s progress and says the first classes are expected to start in April.
“We just did the closeout on the building,” he says. “Training for the instructors at the school is scheduled to start in February and March; the first classes will be in April.”
The fire marshal’s official website, however, raises more questions.
On the Fire Academy’s menu of courses, there are no start dates for the first five classes listed. The next three are to be held in Westerly, Central Coventry and on Prudence Island. The first class announced for the academy site was a vehicle safety course on Jan. 28 which would seem to contradict Chartier’s statement.
The next two classes, including one in arson investigation, are planned for Dunn’s Corners in Westerly and the Western Coventry station.
According to the website’s list of courses and fees, charges range from as low as $260 for a person doing basic hazard materials operations to $14,610 for a haz-mat technician. The class to train as an incident safety officer costs $960; the majority of tuition fees fall between $1,825 and $6,730.
Members of several rural and volunteer fire departments – who asked to remain anonymous – contend that money has been an issue in what they feel is a tardy opening. They question if the facility has been adequately funded.
Chartier insists that it has.
“It’s a restricted-receipt account,” he says of the academy’s budget designation. “Money is [there] to open the doors and run programs.”
Moreover, he explains, fire personnel are trained on a pay-as-you-go basis.
“Students pay for the programs they attend. We run the programs on a fee for service basis. We set up the class, run it and bill the [individual fire] department.”
Chartier says basic funds are sufficient for services needed to keep the facility running, such as electricity and heat.
He adds that the schedule for faculty orientation and the general opening was established by the State Fire Education Board which oversees the training. Plans called for an April start-up of classes.
Rumblings that the school is underfunded, he declares, are based on “less than accurate information.”
One source who is affiliated with a volunteer outfit suggested that departments who suffered municipal cutbacks and were depending on outside subsidies are unable to afford the training that Col. O’Donnell predicted would make “Rhode Island the leader for first responders going into dangerous situations.”
“Fire departments that had planned to take courses based on grants are being turned down for that funding,” says the rural firefighter.
The fire academy is located on property near the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Route 2, on a developed area that includes the Job Corps and the Phoenix House rehab center.
It was built for $6.4 million and includes a “burn” building, training tower and other props. A second phase in which a structure housing classrooms and administrative offices would be built at a cost of $2.8 million. It’s scheduled for completion in January 2013.
The new fire academy was funded through a $55 million bond issue approved 10 years ago.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .