It’s hard to believe that any facility as akin to fire and fury as the Beaumont Emergency Safety Training complex could fade away more gently. A cursory search of Beaumont news sites notes not one word about the death of this historic fire training school.
Granted, the city suffered a stunning blow from a hurricane so nasty its name was an immediate candidate for official retirement, al la Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Sandy. But I image if a city landmark such as the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum remained closed so many months later it might grab somebody’s attention.
Maybe it stands disregarded because the place was inundated rather than demolished. Squatting next to Interstate 10, the BEST complex is free of wreckage, almost pristine, with nothing visible from a distance to suggest it was recently beneath seven feet of flood water.
But after 51 years of continuous operation you would think some local reporter or historian would cobble together some kind of obituary honoring the place for a half century of fire training.. That is what we have tried to do in this issue. (See page 22)
We have now lost two premiere fire schools in America – first the University of Nevada at Reno’s Fire Science Academy and now BEST. At least NFSA got immediate internment. A political and financial disaster of longstanding, the academy met its final repose when bulldozers irreparably swept away the fire projects to eliminate any chance it could ever reopen.
Being inundated by salt water is almost as final as the fate that befell NFSA. Perhaps the lack of grief owes to the problem that befalls too many fire schools. NFSA replaced a training facility in Reno that grew unwelcome as it was encircled by development. BEST is not only encircled but practically ingested, the towers of downtown Beaumont only blocks away.
In an age where we train doctors, let alone firefighters, using virtual reality, fire schools may soon be going the way of video stores and pay telephones. No doubt virtual reality has a place in training professionals, but I would still prefer my surgeon tackle something a bit more complicated than Grand Theft Auto. The same goes for the firefighter dealing with a life-or-death emergency at the refinery.
In the course of promoting the real kind of industrial fire training, I have acquired some fond memories at BEST over the years. In 1998, I consulted on two television documentaries shot at BEST, one about the latest technological advances in firefighting and another about Dwight Williams. IFW made use of the fire field for each of the three consecutive industrial fire conferences we conducted in Beaumont. And there was always the Williams Fire & Hazard Control Xtreme Industrial Fire and Hazard Training to look forward to every summer.
There may still be time to save a piece of BEST. Before bringing in the wrecking ball, offer the props to any ambitious fire school that has space for them. Sure, it is expensive to move a prop across country, but it is still cheaper than designing and building a new one from the ground up.
There needs to be a plaque where the school once stood with some pithy epitaph summing up the BEST experiece. Maybe we should quote Ronald Reagan.
“If you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”
Years ago I helped start the Fire Heritage Foundation to preserve the history of firefighting in the U.S. If you have a story to share about your experience at a training exercise or event at BEST please send it to me. If possible join me in funding this important mission by going online to www.fireheritageusa.org/contact/ and make a donation in recognition of BEST.