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Public Safety Officers Learn to be Honor Guards at California Academy

SARAH BURGE
Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA)

RIVERSIDE When it comes to firefighter and police honor guards, the West Coast has been a veritable wilderness. It's not that the funeral ceremonies are shabby - quite the contrary. Formal training has just been hard to come by, said Capt. Bart Chambers of the Riverside County Fire Department.
Chambers said the public-safety honor-guard academy he helped start at Riverside National Cemetery in September 2004 is the first accredited school on the West Coast.

The program is offered through Riverside Community College, Chambers said, and holds five-day sessions about twice a year.

More than 100 students have gone through the training. The academy teaches the elaborate choreography and arcaneterminology of military-style funerals - with a police and firetwist.

Chambers said honor-guard students learn the history and details of funeral rituals, such as marching, flag handling and preparing uniforms.

They also learn to plan funerals, which caninvolve managing thousands of guests, traffic control and setting up staging areas, meals and portable toilets for hundreds of participants.

Tustin police Officer John Frahm, a student attending this week,said, "We've all seen it on TV. But you never think of who's responsible for all that."

Frahm said he and his partner had no idea what was in store forthem. "We were all into the concept of doing the flags, carrying the rifle," Frahm said. "When we came out here and saw the coffins, it kind of threw us for a loop. Our department has never talked about burial details," he said.

Honor guard is all about details. And there are a lot of them.Chambers said students receive a four-inch binder full of information. The minutiae of flag etiquette alone are enough to fill a day.

For instance, when a flag is folded - "casing the colors" - it should be done without the flag brushing the casket, and the finished product can't leave a bit of red showing. Chambers said his particular bugaboo is ill-maintained uniforms - rips, frays, unpolished buttons.

"If family members are seeing that, it appears that you reallydon't care," Chambers said. "People are looking at you. You needto be better than everybody else." Although most people won't know, for example, that it matters whether the casket is carried feet first or head first, every audience has its expert.

If the honor guard makes a mistake, Chambers said, someone always pulls aside the transgressors afterwards to "enlighten" them.

"Generally it's an older guy," Chambers said - like him - "who's been in the military."

On Thursday, the 14-member class was out at 8 a.m. practicing drills in the fog and chill. After a few hours of marching, turning and maneuvering a metal casket around trees and overbumpy terrain, the class was ready for a break. For a confused moment, a group stood two students short at the rear of the hearse. "How many people does it take to fold a flag?" the instructor asked, impatiently, as if it were the most obvious question inthe world.

For the unenlightened - that's eight.
 
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