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Riverdale building ?mobile fire safety theater'

By Ed Brock

In a barn in the quiet Fayette County countryside, a not so secret project by the Riverdale Fire Department is coming together piece by piece.

In January the department bought a 1983 GMC Bluebird school bus from Clayton County for $1, and ever since then members of the fire department have been working to convert it into a "mobile fire safety theater."

They've torn out the seats and are now installing cabinets and drywall to make the bus resemble a house so it can be used to teach schoolchildren how to safely escape a real fire.

"We're hoping to have it finished by late September," Riverdale Fire Lt. Bo Cummings said. "We definitely want to have it finished by the week of October 5 to 11 which is Fire Prevention Week," Cummings said.

The bus is in Fayetteville because that's where Riverdale Fire Sgt. Ronald Williamson's parents live. Williamson, his brother and their father William Williamson are doing much of the interior work.

"We've all worked together remodeling houses," Williamson said. "I said just bring it down here, we've got all we need down here."

But just about every member of the department has had a hand in working on the bus, Cummings said.

"It's like working around the house," Cummings said. "You have times when you get a lot accomplished and you have your minor setbacks."

Cummings got the idea for converting a bus into a fire safety theater two years ago from the Safety Educators of Georgia and said it's been done before. Other departments, like the Forest Park Fire Department, have ordered special built trailers for the same purpose.

Forest Park bought their trailer five years ago from a company called Surry Fire Safety Houses for $20,000, Maj. Keith Hurley said.

"We ?spec-ed' it out and they custom made it for us," Hurley said.

Since then they have sent an average of 4,000 children a year through the trailer at schools and a variety of special events. It seems to be an effective way of teaching young people about fire safety, Forest Park Maj. Paul Beamon said.

"They have so much fun with it that the kids will actually recite some of the safety tips before the instructor can get them out," Beamon said.

The Riverdale safety theater will have a similar layout to the Forest Park unit. One section will be a faux kitchen/living room where the children will learn how to avoid burns while another section will be a bedroom where they are taught how to escape from a fire.

"Once they get out they'll go to the mailbox we'll have as a meeting place," Cummings said.

The material for refurbishing the bus comes from contributions or is financed by a $3,000 grant from the Georgia Firefighters Burn Association. Other sponsors are Gary's Auto Trim Shop in Riverdale, Williamson Construction Company in Fayetteville, Palm Harbor Homes of La Grange, the Wal-Mart in Riverdale and Floor Coverings of Georgia, Inc. in Riverdale.

The work going on in her barn doesn't bother Williamson's mother Carolyn Williamson, but she's worried about how they'll get it out with the air-conditioner they've installed on the bus' roof.

"And William said now he's going to make himself a camper," Carolyn Williamson said. "He's all enthused."