A Success Story In Fire Service Training

Ask fire chiefs what their most perplexing problems are and they will come up with similar answers - budget constraints, compliance with mandated standards, acquiring and keeping quality people, training, morale and personnel issues. Some fire chiefs never solve these problems because they stick to a traditional management culture and fail to learn to think "outside the box."

Photo Courtesy of Bates Technical College
Firefighter training at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, WA. Most of the instruction in the Fire Service Training Program is done with in-service professional firefighters and officers.

This is a success story about the people and programs at Bates Techni-cal College in Tacoma, WA, where trails have been blazed in fire service partnerships and quality training that did not exist for many fire departments in western Washington State.

Bates is the state's largest technical college. With two primary campuses, enrollment is about 4,500 full-time students. The college has expanded its programs during its 50-year history to include everything from culinary arts to computer programming. The college operates TV and radio stations and provides interactive teleconferencing and mobile satellite communications. Various courses and facilities guarantee that the school can build, fabricate, fix or haul just about anything, which has been of benefit to the Fire Service Training Program at the school.

Chief Richard Graeber heads fire service training. During the past five years, he has partnered with fire chiefs and training officers to rebuild and expand fire service training. The program is 25 years old and has about 2,000 working fire service alumni, including many chief officers. What was a relatively obsolete and slow-paced vocational course has become one of the most dynamic and multi-faceted training machines in Washington State.

The anchor is the two-year associate of technology degree program that provides an academic background and exposes students to the fire service culture. Although some students can excel on a faster track, many need the time that the two-year program offers to become desirable firefighter candidates. Some need basic skills in English and math; others need the discipline and mentoring that the instructors provide. The program has a capacity of 60 students and usually is full.

The instructor corps is the secret to success. Most of the instruction is done with in-service professional firefighters and officers. Graeber and his associate, Rich Heidal, are the only two full-time instructors in fire service training. All of the other instructors are active-duty fire personnel, most specializing in areas such as hazardous materials, safety or live fire training. There are about 30 instructors and 15 drivers and para-technical aides.

Selection of instructors and aides is done by checking qualifications, experience, references and continuous demonstrative growth. Fire service instructors are held to a higher standard because they must not only meet the school's instructor criteria, but the expectations of their peer instructors and the students.

Photo by Michael Keohi
The college's mobile hazmat and confined space trainer was built from a semi-tanker trailer. It includes working hazmat leak fixtures and a multi-hatch, multi-compartmented interior that can simulate almost any confined space scenario.

In the two-year program students wear uniforms and learn in a facility designed to resemble a real fire station. The curriculum includes elements of Firefighter I, engine and pump operations, live fire burns, hazmat operations certification and many ancillary classes. Many students also acquire EMT, wildland and Firefighter I certifications while enrolled in the degree program.

The program that has probably had the largest impact on the local fire service is the nine-week recruit school, accredited by the Interna-tional Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC). Until 1994, some area fire departments ran their own recruit schools or sent recruits to the state fire academy at North Bend. Many departments did not send recruits to any school and used on-the-job training as their standard.

Through a few years of developing working relationships and trust, Graeber developed a core group of fire departments in Pierce County that were willing to place members in his recruit program. That program was a cooperative effort with the local fire departments and primarily used instructors, drill sites and equipment assigned to the project and managed by Graeber. The immediate advantages were a reduction in time and effort that the local department training officers had to spend on recruit training, and the improvements derived from a larger instructor cadre and better curriculum and administration. As more recruit classes were graduated, accreditation was achieved and a reputation developed. More departments took notice and became interested in the program.

The school has access to three drill sites with towers. Apparatus includes seven structural engines (one with a TeleSqurt), a 100-foot aerial, two wildland engines, a tender and various support vehicles. The Fire Service Training Program has rescue tools, generators, breathing apparatus, ventilation fans and all of the support equipment found at any fire department. All of the rolling stock is maintained at the college's diesel mechanic training facility.

An exciting addition to the program is a mobile hazmat and confined space trainer. This unit was built from a semi-tanker trailer in the welding program shop at the downtown campus in Tacoma. It includes working hazmat-leak fixtures and a multi-hatch, multi-compartmented interior that can simulate almost any confined space scenario. The unit can be transported by Bates' commercial truck driving training division.

Other programs/services available include: a 140-hour volunteer academy; entry-level testing for local fire departments; high school summer academy; Wildland Firefighter I and II training; hazmat operations and technician training; officer training; wildland response contracts with the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service; classes and seminars for in-service fire personnel; outreach training for rural departments; a mobile computer laboratory; emergency vehicle accident prevention and CDL training/testing; and help with construction and fabrication of mobile and site-built training props at department drill sites.

This is not intended to be an advertisement for Bates as a stand-alone training provider. What has been created is a true partnership with the fire service. The intent is to show what can be accomplished on a regional level with vision and cooperation. The programs have brought consistent standards to fire departments that never had them before. A mutual respect among departments has developed through joint participation in Bates' programs. Bates has become a clearinghouse that can provide the local fire service with potential new hires or trained recruits.

The key to continued success is the advisory committee system that assures that fire service professionals continually advise and direct the quality and focus of the Fire Service Training Program. Firefighter union officials also participate at all levels.

The moral of the story is this: don't write off community and technical colleges as important potential resource and operational partners. They can provide technical support, administrative services, teaching expertise and in some cases accredited programs and even equipment. They in turn benefit from our experience, knowledge and people.

For more information write to Chief Richard Graeber, Bates Tech-nical College, 2201 South 78th St., Tacoma, WA 98409. E-mail rgraeber@ctc.edu.

Michael Keohi has been in the fire service for 25 years and is the training safety chief of the Lakewood, WA, Fire Department. He serves on the fire and emergency service training general advisory board and the fire academy sub-committee at Bates Technical College. Richard Graeber is the department head/fire service training at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, WA. He holds an associate's degree in fire science and multiple teaching certifications. He has been in the fire service for 23 years and his professional experience includes the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Yuba City, CA, Fire Department, the fire academy at Butte College in Chico, CA, and Yuba College in Marysville, CA.