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Jake Fuller was studying to become a teacher, following in the career path of his parents, when he decided the profession wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. He sought something that was physically challenging, valued by the community and included an academic degree. That’s when he discovered, by way of a coworker, the University of Montana-Helena Fire and Rescue Program.
The former graduate of the program is now a senior firefighter at Missoula Rural Fire District (MRFD) – and teaches in the program.
“I was on a career path, but wanted to change direction. And that’s what the U of M-Helena program offered. I wanted to have the degree. I also wanted to find a route to get into the fire service. In Montana, this program was the best option for me,” he says. After graduation, Fuller moved to Missoula and began as a “resident” firefighter at MRFD, which put him in good stead when a job opened 10 months later. Today, Fuller is a senior firefighter and avid proponent of the program.
Mike Wiederhold, coordinator of the University of Montana-Helena Fire and Rescue program, says his program is an effective route for students seeking technical and academic credentials to land them a job in the fire service.
“If it weren’t for our program it might be very difficult for an individual to gain an avenue to find a position in a career fire department in Montana. Because students learn in the program what they need to know to do the job. All of our instructors are active firefighters. It’s really a two-year interview process. You’re being taught by individuals who will be part of the hiring process so that when you’re done with the two-year program they know a lot about you,” he says. “We are a two-year career college under the University of Montana-Helena College of Technology. Our fire and rescue program has been in operation for 14 years. We offer two-year programs in associate of applied science and see approximately 40 students per year at our Helena and Missoula campuses.”
The residency program U of M-Helena employs is gaining in popularity nationwide. It varies in some aspects from station to department, but it involves placing students in firehouses, much as interns in business. Students are given a shift schedule to follow and are expected to demonstrate their proficiency of training on emergency calls. This is a tremendous resource for the community and students. Fire departments, many long struggling for adequate staffing, find the program as at least a partial solution to manpower needs. Of course, students find the practical experience invaluable as they apply classroom theories on the street.
“Our resident program is a two-year term available to current students and others. As a combination department (MRFD), we are highly supplemented by volunteers and residents,” Fuller says. “These individuals have live-in quarters in a fire station and they are assigned 12-hour shifts. It’s one of the few opportunities in our part of the world to gain hands-on experience in a fire station and learn the fire department culture.”
When he was a prospective student, Fuller says, “the biggest draw for me was that it was a hands-on experience – not just academics.” Student evaluations bear this out. “Currently, the job training is a great selling point for us,” Fuller says. “But we offer the training ground aspect of a fire academy in conjunction with academics...Almost across the board we hear from successful students – ones who have attained jobs – how oftentimes they had to remind themselves that they were in school. They were out doing what they considered fun activities for college credit. I also hear that students didn’t expect the academics and the level of higher education expectations we have for them.”