Arkansas Fire Training Academy Director Andy Woody shared with the Rotary Club of Camden the positive direction the program is headed in, as well as the wide reach it has, last week during a regular meeting.
Woody was named to lead the Fire Academy last February.
"We've got a lot of things that are happening there. We're kind of trying to revamp our reputation within the community and within the state," Woody told Rotarians.
Step one in those efforts has been rebuilding the Fire Academy's (AFTA's) relationship with SAU-Tech, through which AFTA provides training and college credit.
"We're massaging what has historically been a poor relationship with the college... It's just one of those things that's been there for whatever reason and we haven't really relied on each other the way we could, to the fullest extent," Woody explained.
The relationship between SAU-Tech and AFTA is mutually beneficial, Woody said. Firefighters who train at AFTA earn college credit, which boosts SAU-Tech's enrollment numbers. SAU-Tech also helps provide for AFTA's technological needs.
"We've even changed our fire trucks; our logos have SAU-Tech's on them," Woody said. "That is a mutually positive relationship that benefits us both in a lot of ways."
AFTA is currently working to expand curriculum. Currently, 39 courses that can go toward certification are offered there, and Woody said the school is working to add some additional non-certification classes.
"We still have one of those few jobs where you can do everything right and it still kills you, so we've got to make sure we get out lots of relevant and current information," Woody said.
And starting in the 2023/2024 school year, high school students will be able to begin training at AFTA for future careers in the fire service.
"This is going to enable them to immediately enter the workforce," Woody said. "It's a three-way partnership, a true partnership, between the school district, the local fire department and SAU-Tech. They're going to earn college credit; the fire department has to be involved because they need the equipment, the truck, the gear; and then the school has to coordinate with the parents and move kids from Point A to Point B."
AFTA is a premier fire training facility, Woody said, and barely missed out on being the site of the National Fire Academy.
"Beautiful campus, nice dorms, great curriculum, instructors from all over the country – but no hands-on classes at the National Fire Academy. We have all of those things," Woody said.
AFTA's capabilities are so sought-after that even the Department of Defense selected its bid to train service members. Woody said instructors from AFTA will travel to Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. next month to provide training. He hopes to win more DoD training bids in the future, he said.
"That's a really big deal, because that could be a sustained revenue source," he said.
Woody said AFTA currently operates with about 20 employees on a $2 million annual budget. Enrollment has increased steadily since 2021, when AFTA served 12,123 students in 1,600 classes. In 2022, enrollment jumped to 17,800 students, and this year, AFTA is on pace to deliver classes to "well over" 20,000 students across about 1,800 classes.
The Fire Academy, in addition to serving paid fire departments, also serves volunteer fire departments, and Woody said he's hoping to grow the Academy's capabilities there as well.
Woody is currently waiting to hear back on a grant he requested that would purchase mobile props to provide off-campus training to volunteer firefighters. Approximately 96% of firefighters in Arkansas are volunteers, he said.
"So we can take a burn building to the local fire department so they're still in service to make their calls with their equipment and their people to protect those areas," he explained.
But to continue growing, AFTA will need additional funding. Woody said he has submitted a capital budget proposal of $8 million to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that he's awaiting word on.
"It's critical to the present and future of the Fire Academy that we increase that revenue," Woody said. "I told somebody a while ago, the sky and our budget are the limit to what we can get done at the Fire Academy because we have such a great team. Fortunately, we've got an ever-increasing demand for our services."
Learn more about the Arkansas Fire Training Academy at sautech.edu/arkansas-fire-training-academy.