Sandy Springs is restarting its Citizens Fire Academy after the pandemic caused program cancellations in 2020, with 18 residents already signed up to take part in the immersive, 8-week program.

The Citizens Fire Academy educates participants about the Sandy Springs Fire Department and what it’s like to be a firefighter, said Reggie McClendon, community affairs officer for the department.

Participants in a pre-pandemic Citizens Fire Academy class learn some practical firefighting lessons. (Sandy Springs Fire Department)

“Here’s something where you really feel like you’re helping the community, you’re really doing something, and it’s fun,” said Jon Ehrlich, a Citizens Fire Academy graduate who went on to join the city’s Fire Corps.

This session of the free program runs one night per week from Aug. 12 to Sept. 30 for about two hours. Participants learn different facets of answering fire calls, emergency medical services calls and accident calls, McClendon said. Part of the training is to take part in a single 12-hour shift with city firefighters, riding along on calls.

Most of the calls are for medical response, where firefighters serve as backup and support for EMS services, he said. Fires do happen, but with current building codes they aren’t as common or as severe, he said.

In addition to receiving Citizens Fire Academy certifications, participants earn American Heart Association CPR/AED certification.

Many retirees including doctors find their way to the Citizens Fire Academy.

Ehrlich, a retired Sandy Springs obstetrician, needed some excitement back in his life after spending 46 years delivering over 9,000 babies. His wife, Maggie, had joined the Sandy Springs Fire Corps.

“I had just retired, and was sort of looking for something to do because retirement was a little too quiet, and she suggested going to the Fire Academy,” he said.

He attended the academy and joined his wife in the Fire Corps, where he’s been ever since.

Participants of the Fire Academy learn basic firefighting techniques, such as crawling blindfolded with 70 pounds of gear on to simulate a firefighter working through a burning building, he said. They also learned the difference between an engine, a truck and a tower.

The students went with firefighters on medical calls. Ehrlich said he was a little more familiar with that after having worked as an obstetrician for years. But he wasn’t used to going out to an apartment or house.

“It was eye opening because I’ve been an obstetrician. I didn’t do much emergency medicine except as it related to pregnant women. So going to pick up an 80-year-old man who’s had a heart attack, it’s a little bit different,” he said.

Some things he learned surprised him, such as the proper way to park a piece of firefighting equipment on a highway to block traffic after an accident. But he got the chance to take on the role of teacher when he showed them how to deliver a baby in an emergency situation, evaluating prematurity and symptoms of pregnancy complications.

“It was a great experience on both ends, learning and doing even a little bit of teaching,” Ehrlich said.

He followed his wife into the Fire Corps, which supports firefighters on scenes including bringing them water to rehydrate, supplying snacks and recharging depleted air tanks.

“I was surprised at how much the firefighters actually respected us,” Ehrlich said about his Fire Corps experience.

The Fire Corps also volunteers by setting up first aid tents at various concerts and outdoor events in the city. They may only hand out a few bandages and little fire helmets to kids, but it’s a lot of fun, he said.

But, Ehrlich and the Fire Corps did more than that, as he used his medical experience to volunteer by giving COVID-19 vaccinations at Fulton County’s Northridge site in Alpharetta and at vaccination events in Sandy Springs, McClendon said.

Ehrlich said what impressed him was that on several days that he volunteered at the vaccination sites, Fire Chief Keith Sanders also volunteered.

An application for the Citizens Fire Academy is available online. For more information, call 770-206-2047 or email rmcclendon@sandyspringsga.gov.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.