If the California Community Colleges is the workhorse that drives the workforce, then the 30 firefighter academies throughout the state are the fire trucks helping to rescue the economy and put out our fiscal fires. In fact, 64 community colleges, more than half of the state's 112 campuses, offer some Fire Technology courses.
The Community College League of California estimates that 80 percent of the state’s firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians received their training at a firefighter academy on or affiliated with a local campus. Community colleges provide excellent training for prospective firefighters in a much more cost effective way than if cities, counties and districts had to pay for private instruction for their employees.
“Back in the 1970s when I started my firefighting career, you got hired by a city and they sent you to paramedic school,” said David Senior, the director of Fire Safety and Emergency Medical Service instruction at Santa Maria’s Allan Hancock College. “That private instruction was expensive. But then community colleges around the state started saying, ‘hey, send them to us,’ and they began teaching the basics. Since then there’s been a huge rise in the number of academies. We save departments a lot of money. They get to hire people who are already very well trained.”
“...there’s so much critical thinking required on the job now that you need an education.
In fire tech, we not only look at fire characteristics but at the science of fires.
You can only do that in the classroom or at the academy.”
Director, Fire Technology &
Emergency Medical Services
Allan Hancock College
Senior said Allan Hancock College usually operates three or four 14-week academies each year and invites 32 firefighter trainees to each. The cost to attend the academy varies between $2,000 and $2,500. The price covers enrollment fees, protective equipment and uniforms. Competition to find a seat is tough and many academies are forced to use a lottery system to determine who gets in. Senior says his college doesn’t have a lottery system but he does have to sift through a hundred applications or so before each academy to select the final 32 lucky students.
Allan Hancock’s academies start at 6:45 a.m. and end at 6 p.m., five days a week. The classroom time and subject matter the firefighter trainees put in at the academy are worth 12 units toward an associate degree in fire technology, which is 30 units of the required 60 for an associate of science degree. Allan Hancock and many other campuses offer online courses too, Senior said. His college has 800 students enrolled online in the core courses for an A.S. in Fire Technology. Core courses include firefighter safety, fire prevention technology and combustion, and chemistry.
The set of core courses used in every California community college have been approved by the state fire marshal, Senior said, and have been adopted by the National Fire Academy. The California Community Colleges has been leading the way in the nation for decades, Senior said. “When I got my fire technology degree (at Allan Hancock College) in 1974, law enforcement was pushing education but not so much in firefighting, at least not on the central coast,” Senior said.
“A lot of public safety used to be you’d come off the street, get the job and then take orders. But there’s so much critical thinking required on the job now that you need an education. In fire tech, we not only look at fire characteristics but at the science of fires. You can only do that in the classroom or at the academy.”
The region surrounding the college believed so much in the fire technology program and academy that $46 million of a $180 million general obligation bond that passed in 2006 has been invested in building a new 80-acre academy and training facility that’s scheduled to open in fall 2013. Senior said the academy will have a six-story burn tower, five large classrooms, a 1.5-mile track to train emergency vehicle operators, a 1,300 square-foot burn building and a huge propane-powered flashback fire simulator.