When does a client become a client? Denise Baclawski, executive director of the University of Nevada, Reno Fire Science Academy prefers that her staff not refer to anyone as a client until their second visit.
"They have to come back before we can really claim them," Baclawski said. "When it comes to clients, the emphasis is on making sure that they walk through the door again."
That attention to customer service is essential in order for the FSA to reach the financial goals it has set for itself. Built at a cost of $27 million in 1998, FSA must increase its enrollment by at least 30 percent annually through 2007 to meet its business plan requirements.
"When we reopened the school in 2002 we trained about 1,800 to 1,900 that year," Baclawski said. "This year we're going to train over 4,000 through the broad range of programs we offer. Next year, we plan to train 5,000 and the year after that 6,000. That's very aggressive."
The best way to ensure that increased enrollment is through good service and attention to what visiting firefighters would like, she said.
"I've told the staff not to worry about the enrollment numbers," Baclawski said. "Let's worry about providing an experience that will make the people want to come back."
Reno is the home of the university's main campus. However, the academy is located almost 300 miles northeast in the Ruby Mountain region of the state. With almost 100 acres of its 426-acre site developed, FSA could easily be mistaken for a small community college -- save for all the fire props. FSA is home to nearly 25 full-sized training props, including some of the tallest vertical props in the country and a record setting 70-foot diameter storage tank prop. (For an expanded listing of the props, see page 24.)
Capable of handling up to 600 students at a time, the campus has an academic center complete with seven multimedia classrooms, each equipped with overhead projectors and Internet connections. There is even a large capacity auditorium for conferences and seminars. The campus also includes an administration building, a turn-out building complete with student lockers and showers, food service building, recreation center and a dormitory building comparable to local motels.
The emergency response community is a close knit group, Baclawski said. What makes or breaks an institution such as FSA is word of mouth. The key to success is customer service, providing the firefighter with a safe, professional experience tailored to their individual needs, she said. In that spirit, FSA continues to refine its niche in the emergency response training market.
"We want to be the very best, but not necessarily the biggest," Baclawski said. "We're small, flexible and responsive. Our clients expect us to be a graduate school of emergency response training."
To that end, FSA has a very small student-to-instructor ratio, said David Crawford, FSA assistant director for marketing and finance. The academy has several full-time individuals qualified as instructors with an additional 30 plus adjunct instructors who qualify as experts in their field.
"You don't have 15 people on a hose line," Crawford said. "At most you'll have between three and four. When you come here for hands-on training that means you'll be on the nozzle for at least several rotations. You'll get the opportunity to turn valves (on the prop) yourself."
Rather than expanding the facility, Baclawski said she plans to concentrate on growing the audience for FSA training. In the past, the petroleum industry has been the driving force behind much of the training at the academy. In addition to continuing to meet the needs of the petroleum industry, FSA is looking at developing programs aimed specifically at other industries such as chemical, power generation, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. In addition, FSA is very interested in addressing the needs of an industry with strong ties to Nevada -- mining.
"We have some of the world's largest mines right in our back yard," Baclawski said. "We would like to have an underground mine simulator. It would not necessarily be underground, but it could be used to simulate a mine fire or a mine inundation. It could also be used to simulate rescue operations."
The FSA props offer an infinite range of fire scenarios that can be tailored to challenge rookies or seasoned professionals. Rather than separate props for each training task, FSA offers a host of interconnected props that more accurately simulate an industrial setting such as a small refinery. A simulated process area is linked to a pump row which might lead to a rail car or tanker loading facility.
One of the newest props is a combination interior fire rescue and shipboard fire fighting prop, Crawford said.
"The front of it looks like a ship engine room," he said. "It can be completely closed off with real smoke and fire added. We can even simulate the kind of foggy smoke that an engine room fire can produce. There are different levels inside and it can become a bit of a maze."
Another new prop in operation since September is a loading rack that allows students to handle vapor as well as liquid flame impingements within a pressured rail car. Financing to build the prop came from a $2.5 million federal appropriation obtained through the Department of Energy's National Center for Combating Terrorism to teach industrial fire fighting techniques and strategies to structural firefighters, Baclawski said.
"You have to recognize that an awful lot of those firefighters don't receive training on handling large flammable liquid fires in the course of their normal training," she said. "We've trained 424 students so far with that grant and plan to teach about 700 through July."
Working with the university's academic faculty, FSA also developed a four-hour course on terrorism awareness that is delivered during the class.
"It talks about what kind of person might be involved in terrorism and what kind of terrorist organizations are active right now in the United States. Rather than some huge act of international terrorism, a responder is much more likely to encounter home grown groups involved in environmental or animal rights causes that are very active."
FSA recently received notification that their grant has been renewed for a second year, meaning another $2.5 million, Baclawski said.?
"We're going to train another 700 municipal and rural firefighters about flammable liquids," she said. "We also plan to develop a new module that has not been fully defined yet. It could possibly be a higher level class for incident commanders and people who are not active participants in the response, but more on the management side."
Another important advancement at FSA is working toward receiving ProBoard and IFSAC certification in 2005. The ProBoard, also known as the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications accredits fire service training agencies that use the National Fire Protection Association professional qualification standards and encourages greater professionalism among fire instructors. Likewise, the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress, or IFSAC, is another organization that accredits fire training.
As part of the effort to extend customer service, FSA clients have four options for scheduling a class. These include:
?? OPEN ENROLLMENT -- These are regularly scheduled courses held on campus such as entry level industrial firefighter, advanced exterior industrial firefighter, and Industrial Fire Brigade Leader.
? COMPANY SPECIAL -- Effectively, a company leases the use of the facility, bringing their own instructors, curriculum and training scenarios. FSA provides the "fueler" -- the person in charge of operating a training prop -- and all the necessary safety personnel.
? SCHEDULED FOR YOU -- Courses can be scheduled for any group if they have enough students to fill a course. Also, on-demand type classes, such as fire investigation and others, are scheduled when there is sufficient demand.
? FSA WORLDWIDE -- Also known as off-site and consulting services, involves standard and customized FSA training classes. Many are suited to the needs of the client and then presented to students on-site anywhere in the world.
"We have a business unit that is fully devoted to our off-site courses and consulting services," said David Crawford, FSA assistant director for marketing and finance. "They do quite well. We just finished a training class in Malaysia (before the tsunami) where we trained about 250 people. We're in constant communication with our clients in the Asian Pacific region as well as Latin America, the Middle East and Northern Africa."
?The extra emphasis on customer service reflects their effort to put FSA's troubled first years behind it. Although founded in 1972, the operations at the new facility in Carlin began in March 1999 only to be curtailed 18 months later amidst much red ink and unexpected environmental impact. Fortunately, threatened lawsuits regarding the project financing were resolved and improvements, including a new wastewater treatment system, allowed the academy to reopen.
Skillful marketing has since put the academy back on the firefighter training map. While some regional markets will be mostly inaccessible to FSA, air travel has opened many others. Nearby Elko's airport is served by SkyWest Airlines, a commuter service that ties northern Nevada to the Delta Airline hub in Salt Lake City. Passengers can also connect to Elko through Reno or Las Vegas.
?"If you're a facility in Texas or Louisiana there will always be closer alternatives that are less expensive," Baclawski said. "But if you're coming in from Atlanta or Indianapolis or Alberta, Canada, or Alaska it's just as easy to visit us."
Major prop expansion will not be in the cards for FSA for at least the next couple of years. But that hasn't kept Baclawski from planning.
"Eventually we'd like to double our prop space," Baclawski said. "We have a very large field directly east of the props that is being reserved for future expansion."
A couple of additional multi-story process unit props for flammable liquid fires are one possibility, she said. Also being considered is an aircraft rescue prop simulating a wide body airliner fuselage.
"Maybe in 2007, if we're meeting our goals, it could happen," Baclawski said.