Article Archive
Burn Card
Nevada closes Fire Science Academy due to lingering debt problems
Vol 27 Winter 2012

Elko County, located in the northeastern corner of Nevada, is home to at least 80 ghost towns, including Bootstrap, Cornucopia, Good Hope, Mud Springs and Ruby City. As of Dec. 31, 2011, a new name was added to the list – the University of Nevada, Reno Fire Science Academy.

After years of exploring options to sustain the long-term financial viability of the fire academy, a recommendation to cease operations in Carlin, NV, was approved Dec. 2 by the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents effective at year’s end.

University President Marc Johnson, in a press release announcing the closure, said the decision was difficult, yet necessary.

“It follows considerable effort over many years to explore options by which the financial viability of the Fire Science Academy operations might be sustained. I extend my continued appreciation to the staff, elected officials, clients, industry stakeholders and others who worked diligently with the university throughout this period.”

Denise Baclawski, FSA executive director, said the staff and local supporters are disappointed by the decision.

“We all had visions and hopes that it would be something different than closure,” she said. “It’s frustrating to me that there couldn’t have been a better option.”

The planned sale of the 426-acre Carlin facility to the Nevada National Guard is moving forward and is anticipated to be finalized within months, the press release states. Plans call for future Nevada National Guard activities and construction at the site, including construction of a new Nevada National Guard Readiness Center.

FSA stands beside the Texas Engineering Extension Service’s Emergency Services Training Institute in College Station, TX, as the largest and most sophisticated training facilities for industrial fire fighting in the U.S.

The academy included 25 full-sized live burn props, together with a staff residence, administration building, cafeteria and recreation building, classrooms and an observation tower. FSA’s staff included 28 full-time positions.

A plan for FSA to continue operating at the site once the National Guard acquired it failed to gain traction. Baclawski said she anticipates that the fire training props will eventually be dismantled and removed.

“Since we are not going to be here, I think it is likely that (the National Guard) will ask us to take them down so that they can use the space for their future activities,” she said.

Opened in March 1999, the academy has endured both financial and political obstructions. A long-term “legacy debt” associated with the purchase and construction of the facility and a related, mediated settlement between the parties involved proved to be an ongoing challenge.

“I think we succeeded in building an excellent training program, but the debt associated with the move to Carlin and the subsequent problems we had there were something we just couldn’t get rid of,” Baclawski said.

The academy currently carries a $24.5 million capital debt and an $11.8 million operating deficit. A per-credit $6.50 fee paid by university students is applied toward the FSA capital debt.

In 2008, an ad hoc advisory council created in response to a state budget crisis issued a recommendation to close the academy if other options to sustain its financial viability could not be identified and implemented.

“The legacy debt and deficit have plagued the Fire Science Academy for many years,” Johnson said. “While the financial performance had improved, the reality is that it does not generate sufficient revenue to provide for needed debt relief.”

FSA replaced operations formerly conducted at the Dodd-Beals Fire Protection Training Academy in Stead near Reno. Encroach-ing development together with restrict-ions on burning that limited operations to six months a year led to plans for the new academy in the isolated Ruby Mount-ain region of northern Nevada.

A Sacramento, CA, investment company put up $27 million to build the new academy. In return, UNR paid $230,000 a month under a 20-year contract to purchase the facility.

In December 1999, an audit revealed that the academy fell almost 1,700 students short of an expected 4,800 students in its first year. As a result, tuition fees were down $1.7 million. A projected $750,000 in consulting and advisory services had netted just $2,800. FSA expected to pick up $350,000 in grants but received just $15,000.

Former UNR president Joe Crowley told regents he did not immediately divulge the financial problems because he felt it would be better to work out solutions for the board to consider. To keep the academy afloat, almost $1.75 million was loaned to FSA by the university and university foundations.

However, even under a revamped business plan, the academy was expected to lose more than $2 million in 2001. The financial picture continued to worsen in May 2000 when accountants revealed that FSA needed to raise $2.5 million by the end of June or face a budget shortfall.

Several regents began to question whether the university should cut its losses by immediately closing the academy. Only a few days later, Crowley announced his decision to retire after more than 22 years at the helm of UNR, making him the longest-serving president at any major U.S. college at that time.

Then, after only 18 months of operation, FSA was forced to suspend live-burn training indefinitely due to groundwater contamination blamed on design and construction deficiencies in the facility’s wastewater treatment plant. After untangling a myriad of legal problems, the academy reopened in 2002.

FSA became vulnerable to closure again in 2008 with the Nevada economy suffering greatly in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. Nevada state agencies faced a mandated budget cut of 14 percent to make up for a projected state shortfall approaching $1 billion. The university receives 60 percent of its funding from the state’s general fund.

A committee chaired by former Nevada governor Kenny Guinn recommended closure of the aca-demy. The report found that the aca-demy was well run and recognized internationally for its fire fighting training. However, it found that FSA had a business plan that was “fatally flawed from the outset with unrealistic cost, enrollment and revenue projections.”

Regents granted a postponement on a decision to close FSA to allow more time to pursue possible funding partnerships with industry. That partnership never came together, Baclawski said.

“We were working with different groups, hoping that something would come to light as a possible alternative or option for us, but it just didn’t materialize in time,” she said.

The December 2011 decision to close FSA includes $4.1 million to cover the expenses of shutting down the facility.

“You have contaminated soil on top of a liner, which is a permitted activity,” Baclawski said. “But once you cease doing that activity, you can’t just leave it there. It has to be treated or hauled off. The liner has to be picked up. You have to do a site restoration so the Guard can use the site for what it wants.”

Unfortunately, the staff will be paying the biggest price of the shut down, Baclawski said. Other than five operation and maintenance personnel who will stay with the facility when it is taken over by the Guard, the rest of the staff positions will be closed out.

A big farewell bash is on hold “until the dust settles and we know where everybody ends up,” Baclawski said.

As for Fire Science Academy’s clients, the options are to either find another training facility or start training in house. The FSA client list has included many of the best known names in industry.

“We are really appreciative of the clients who have supported us throughout the years,” Baclawski said. “We have really had an amazing set of clients.”


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