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The four-semester-long program not only meets minimum standards as set forth by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, 1582 and 1901; academics are emphasized too. A sampling of non-fire courses required of students include Introduction to Technical Writing, Electronic Communications, Technical Mathematics and Career Development in Human Relations. Also integrated in the program is EMT-basic.
Wiederhold says, “What I’ve heard from our advisory council is that they desire students who have better math and English skills. They want them to be able to communicate well, do math…If you look at the leadership in the fire service, they are becoming more educated. They are running big budgets; they are truly CEOs. So when today’s fire service leadership looks at the folks coming up in their departments, they are expecting those skills too.”
The promise of community colleges
The U.S. has more than 1,600 community colleges with some 5.5 million students enrolled in a variety of academic and technical endeavors. Once called junior colleges, these institutions were created to provide a bridge to the university system. Others saw these two-year institutions as America’s democracy colleges, opening their doors to students who otherwise would not have been afforded the opportunity of higher education. With the rising tuition rates at four-year institutions, community colleges continue to provide access to a diverse population, delivering vocational education to meet local, state and national economic demands.
The Truman Commission, shortly after World War II, provided a prominence to community colleges, extending educational opportunities to returning GIs who were encouraged to attend college by the GI Bill. The Presidential Commission found, “the community college seeks to become a center of learning for the entire community with or without the restrictions that surround formal coursework in traditional institutions of higher education. It gears its programs and services to the needs and wishes of the people it serves.”
This acclamation and surging enrollments fired the fervor of community colleges in the 1960s. This rapid transformation of higher education saw just about one community college built per week in the 1960s with some 1,000 community colleges operating in every state, boasting an enrollment of 2.5 million students by the fall of 1970.
The line between academic and technical education and training is less defined as it once was. In the first two decades of the 20th century, two-year institutions succeeded in granting students university transfer. Some argue that the “vocationalization” of community colleges should be a goal. Yet statistics show that one out of every two community colleges is developing service-learning programs, whose mission is to combine formal instruction with a related community service. This can take on many permutations, firefighting certainly one of those. Service learning doesn’t end with a vocation; some see it as a way for students to develop vital skills such as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, written and oral communication and the role of self and community.
Natalie Hannum, department chair and assistant professor at Moreno Valley College in California, sees her institution’s goals based in technical proficiency, academic preparation and community service.
“Community colleges, Moreno Valley College included, provide affordable options for students,” she says. “By integrating service learning, vocational skills and basic skills education, employers are getting well-rounded candidates and students are getting a well-rounded education. We hear from the firefighting industry that candidates today need to have better ‘soft’ skills such as manners, etiquette, appearance, customer service skills and intuitive abilities to work with others. Service learning is a great way to advance a student’s soft skills in these areas.