Following concerns that the Weatherford College Fire Academy might be in jeopardy, roughly 15 individuals — mostly current or former instructors and cadets of the Weatherford College Fire Academy — showed up at the college's monthly board meeting to express their support of the program.
The academy's future is uncertain after the property it was using for classes and training was committed to be the future sight for the city of Weatherford's new public safety building.
Weatherford College Public Safety Professions Director Stephen Malley said fire safety has been his passion for more than 40 years now.
"I wish Weatherford College could develop the passion for the fire academy that we have," he said, gesturing to the numerous speakers in chairs and standing against the wall of the board room.
David Hood, who's been a full-time firefighter since 2010, attended the fire academy as well as the EMS program at WC.
"We're a community college here — we're meant to serve the community," he told the board.
Roddy Coquat served as a firefighter, paramedic and captain in Mineral Wells for many years, and has been with the academy since it started in 1999. He said he's seen the quality of instructors and cadets that have come out of the academy.
"I sat on the hiring board at Mineral Wells for years and when we got a bunch of the Weatherford College fire recruits in, I was tickled because I knew their training and I knew we would have some good candidates," he said. "I think right now, of the 19 people working at Mineral Wells, 15 of them are Weatherford College products.
"If you were to go to downtown Weatherford and throw a rock, you're going to hit somebody that has worked or been a recruit or come from one of these programs here at Weatherford College. It's like a spiderweb all around the region."
Aledo Mayor Kit Marshall, who attended Weatherford College her freshman year, says it's where she learned what her career path was going to be.
"Weatherford College is more than academia. I understand budgeting and the things that go into budgeting, but I want to share with you something that's bigger than that," she said. "With the hats that I wear, I've had the opportunity to work in the region on many levels and my experience has brought me into contact with many first responders, whether it was training, exercise or meetings that impact our region.
"I want you to understand that Weatherford College has always been the bell-ringer for others in the Metroplex because of the fire academy."
Marshall said she knows the integrity of the program, noting that the college must believe in and support it.
"Look to the south, to the north and to the west and you tell me where there is another resource like Weatherford College that can impact the lives of many, whether it's academia or our technical careers," she said. "I would challenge each and every one of you to find the 'yes' — what does the 'yes' look like to support a program that is making a difference in saving lives?"
Michael Davis has been an instructor for the academy for almost eight years.
"We do more than teach people how to put out fires and cut up cars," he said. "We're teaching men, we're teaching leaders in the community — it's more than just doing the job. And if you [eliminate] this program, you're cutting off the legs.
"Even though you might turn your back on us, we'll never turn our backs on you."
Many speakers shared the need for getting more support from the college, including Tom Blair, WC Fire Academy coordinator.
"There's no support from the college. Our budget just gets us by each year," he said, noting that despite that, the program continues to produce a 98% completion rate. "I know the college is really good at generating outside funds, so why can't they do that for us?
"What we do is save lives and that ought to be important, but it's like we're an afterthought."
Joe Don James, who served as many years, drove more than 200 miles from Crockett to speak in support.
"This program, bar none, is right at the top, and I'm disappointed, almost disgusted, by the way they've been treated," he said. "And I can speak from personal experience because I was an instructor for eight years."
As fire chief of Central Community Fire Department, part of ESD 8, David Chilcutt — who himself earned two WC degrees including one in fire administration — said he is a user of the academy, and that the college needs to take more ownership of it.
"They've been in a portable building behind the old power plant for the last several years, and their fire truck is in a tent," he said. "That's not what you want to see. I know we don't have the money like Tarrant County does, but we can still kick out the same type of firefighter that can go out and make a difference, and y'all have the opportunity to improve a great program."
Attendees all spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, and board President Mac Smith iterated that no action would be taken because the item was not on the agenda.
"I know it's not on the agenda, but something brought this up," Chilcutt said. "There's some kind of concern, otherwise we wouldn't be here."
In it's 22-year history, the academy has never had a permanent home, starting out in Mineral Wells, then moving to Weatherford Station No. 3, then Hudson Oaks before relocating to the current Weatherford property.
Brent Baker, a spokesperson for WC, told the Democrat earlier this week that the college has met with other potential partners that could share in the cost of relocating, but so far, the right arrangement has not presented itself.
"The cost of relocating the program without a partner to share the expense is estimated at approximately $430,000," he said.
Several months ago, members of ESD 1 reached out to help possibly provide a location for the fire academy.
ESD 1 Chief Stephen Watson said the department's original goal for a property, located off Farmer Road close to Interstate 20, was to build a training facility for ESD 1.
"We were planning to do our own thing and when we heard the fire academy was looking for a place to go, we reached out to college staff and said we would be interested in partnering up," he said.
Talks between the parties broke down during the pandemic, but Watson and ESD 1 Board President Mark Jack, a WC Fire Academy graduate himself, said they are still willing to be strategic partners.
"We're still willing to sit down at the table, and maybe we can help out on this," Jack said.