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Firefighter academies help rescue state’s economy

Heather Placek knew
where she wanted to go in life
and how to get there – onboard a firetruck. 
     Placek is taking advantage of the training provided at American River College’s firefighter academy in Rancho Cordova, about a 15-minute fire engine ride – without
sirens – east of Sacramento. The 25-year-old single
mother has one class left this fall – fire protection
systems – before she earns her associate degree in
Fire Technology. Once she gets her paramedic training and certification, she’s off to a promising career as a firefighter.
     "For me, the fire academy and the fire technology program was cost-effective," said Placek, who lives in Shingle Springs, near Sacramento. "I’m still able to work full time and, as a single parent, that’s huge. So money-wise, and time-wise,
the program has been excellent for me."

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.”

David Senior
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.

"Firefieghter Training and Academy"
Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria 

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.

It looks like a singular Herculean act, but is really several firefighter trainees working in a teammwork drill at the Mt. San Antonio College firefighter academy.

It's customary for graduating firefighter academy classes to pose for a class photo while using an element of their training. This photo is of Mt. San Antonio College's 51st class from 2010.

It's called firefighting for a reason. Firefighter trainees at Mt. San Antonio College get up close and personal with their respected enemy.

Firefighter trainees practice water application during a drill.

Through drills at an academy, trainees can learn fire characteristics and the best way to work with and against a fire.

Repelling is an important skill for any firefighter to learn and community college fire academies provide that training at a much cheaper rate for municipalities than private instruction.

Mt. San Antonio College firefighter trainees work on their wildland firefighting skills during a drill of the college's 51st academy in 2010.

An academy trainee learns important hose techniques during a wildland firefighting drill.

A large part of firefighter training at community college academies centers around physical fitness. Here a trainee has to traverse a hill while carrying heavy equipment in the heat.

An on-site burn room simulates a structure fire for a firefighter trainee at Mt. San Antonio College.

Firefighter academy students at Allan Hancock College often study together. It's part of the teamwork that is constantly stressed by instructors.

A firefighter trainee is shown how to put on her hazardous materials suit during a drill at Allan Hancock College's firefighter academy.

Allan Hancock College firefighter academy students walk to a drill in full gear.
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Al Iannone is the director of the Fire Technology program at American River College and is the coordinator at the college’s academy at the former Mather Air Force Base. American River College’s academy costs $2,920. That includes enrollment fees, personal protection equipment and an academy uniform package. Those enrolled in the academy commit to 650 hours and earn 20 units toward the degree, Iannone said. The fire technology degree path is 29 units. American River College runs two, 19-week academies each year and an extended format academy of 24 weeks that is designed for working students. Classes at the extended academies typically start after 5 p.m., Iannone said.

Like Senior, Iannone has been around long enough to see firefighting’s academic evolution, how it’s grown from literally trial-by-fire to rigorous classroom instruction where a series of test scores less than 80 percent can get a student bounced from an academy.

"Firefieghter Training and Academy"
Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut. 

“When I went to American River College in the 1960s I was employed by the West Sacramento Fire Department and some of my bosses said ‘hey, we put water on fires, not books,’” Iannone said. “But eventually the old guard left and the new guard definitely began pushing education. You start looking at hazardous materials and dealing with fires caused by all the different chemicals we have now, you better have an education.”

Heather Placek said a fire behavior and combustion class she took her first semester changed her life and challenged her pre-conceived notions of firefighting. Classroom learning has always come easy for her, but that class challenged her like no other with its complexities, nuances and rigorous academic requirements. She gained a new level of respect for her chosen profession and those who choose to fight fires, too.

Besides, she said, there was no way she was going to follow her older brother, Kevin, into police work. “My ultimate goal has always been to become a firefighter/paramedic and, for a kid from a middle-class, blue-collar background, community college was a great option,” said Placek, whose brother also attended American River College and graduated with a degree in criminal justice. “My brother went into law enforcement but, not me. I’d rather save them than shoot them.”