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Firefighter sidelined by cancer returns to relaunch ‘smokehouse’

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While firefighter Leroy Armstrong might be temporarily sidelined from his job, saving lives has never been far from his mind.

The Columbus firefighter and paramedic was forced last year to stop battling blazes and instead battle cancer. After that life-changing chapter in his life began, the 34-year-old husband and father of two found himself with little time or energy to look after anyone outside his family.

But after making medical progress, Armstrong is eager to return to service for his community. He has agreed to coordinate and expand safety and prevention programs for the Columbus Fire Department.

While he used to instruct kids to “stop, drop and roll” if they caught on fire, Armstrong sees his new job as preventing children from enduring that terrible experience in the first place.

Schedule safety programs

The Columbus Fire Department is scheduling fire safety and prevention programs for fall. Schools in rural areas, where response times usually are longer, are especially urged to include the program in their 2013-14 school-year curriculum.

Firefighters will bring several items of interest during their school appearances, including:

  • The two-story fire safety house
  • Tilly, the miniature fire truck
  • A full-size fire engine
  • Coloring books

For more information, call Julie Dayton at 376-2585.

One key responsibility will be to bring the restored mobile fire-safety house back into the curriculum of local schools. The two-story trailer uses nontoxic theatrical fog to simulate a smoky house fire.

Roughly 25,000 third- and fourth-graders have been through the trailer since 1998, when it was purchased with a private corporate donation of $27,000. But the educational facility has not been operating for the past two years.

The unit commonly referred to by firefighters as “the smokehouse” was heavily damaged during a May 2011 wind and hailstorm that caused significant damage in eastern Bartholomew County.

But while Armstrong and the smokehouse might have been down, neither was out.

“We want to get the word out that it is back up and running,” Armstrong said, which is an opportunity to get back into the schools.

During the interactive experience, firefighters ask children several questions about safety preparations at their homes that many kids cannot answer, Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon said. Those questions prompt the young students to take their inquiries and concerns home.

“The children get their parents to start thinking of fire safety and to create an emergency evacuation plan,” Armstrong said. “Kids do have a tremendous influence over Mom and Dad, especially if they bug them enough.”

Increasing awareness of the smokehouse program is just one of Armstrong’s new responsibilities. Along with fellow firefighter Mike Wilson, Armstrong will work on recruiting more firefighters and paramedics to become involved in educational programs. They also will work to ensure consistency in all fire-protection information being provided to children and adults.

“You used to have one or two guys handle the educational programs, usually the inspectors,” Columbus public safety spokesman Matt Myers said. “Now, what you’ll (eventually) see is all the guys involved in it, one way or the other.”

Existing or future programs include working with area businesses to evaluate their emergency plans, teaching CPR and distributing free smoke detectors. The latter is important because in two-thirds of all fire-related fatalities, there are no working smoke detectors in the home, Armstrong said.

Wilson said special efforts will be made to take educational programs to rural elementary schools throughout Bartholomew County, especially those in Hope and Taylorsville. He explained that response times to house fires out in the country often are longer than those within the city.

“When it comes to the safety of children, there are no borders,” said Wilson, co-chairman of the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund.

Since fire department personnel can visit schools only when they are not on-call for emergencies, Armstrong is urging grade school teachers and administrators to start booking now for the start of the fall semester.

Armstrong was diagnosed last year with Stage IV colon cancer and was forced to undergo chemotherapy to fight an illness that metastasized to his liver.

He said a series of six scans do not show any new cancerous masses. He said his goal is to return to work full time sometime next month.

“Am I out of the woods? Absolutely not,” said the husband and father of two preschool-age daughters. “Right now, the news is good. But it’s going to be a lifelong battle.”

Armstrong said working with Wilson to coordinate and expand the fire department’s educational programs will help him return his focus to normal activities.

“This helps me move on,” he said.

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