by Emily Irving
After a downward surge of projected careers in the firefighting industry, there is a dire need to bring in a new generation of future firefighters. But with the global pandemic bringing most in person training and schooling to a halt and the retirement of many seasoned fire chiefs, there is an alarming gap left to fill in the workforce.
In an effort to work towards solving this problem however, two firefighter workforce training programs have emerged from the North Bay Area: FIRE Foundry in Marin County, and SRJC’s Wildfire resiliency program, both of which will attempt to engage more diverse and youthful trainees. These programs will work to pave a way for young people toward successful and sustainable careers in the fire industry.
What are these new programs? What will they do?
FIRE Foundry was envisioned by Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber after watching the fire disasters in California grow worse. Sofia Martinez, Coordinator of the program for County of Marin describes Chief Weber’s determination after seeing the demographics of firefighters drop, thinking that it “should not be a secret… we need to change this.” The UC Berkeley Lab for Climate Research, among many others, rallied behind him on this vision, seeing the opportunity to reimagine technology and equity.
FIRE Foundry was established from the desire to connect with communities and people, help towards sustainable careers, and to immerse in current technology. Their goals are to recruit, educate, and support trainees through their journey of finding a career pathway in the firefighter workforce.
Their pathway towards a sustainable career involves four phases: recruitment, academy education, finding seasonal positions, then earning full-time positions.
FIRE Foundry works with local high schools, community colleges, and local fire agencies to recruit young adults from a diverse background. These recruits help to satiate the intense demand for wildfire prevention workers and are provided liveable wages while they are learning on the job.
Recruitment officially began on November 1st, and applications were sent out to high schools and colleges throughout the area, asking for trainees aged 18-30. The requirements consist of a high school diploma, efficiency in English, and the ability to commit to all-day certificate training. Those who do not meet one of the requirements are given the option to work through a program at North Bay Conservation Corps.
Once recruited, trainees will have a residency, a mental wellness curriculum, and financial wellness curriculum in order to “not only work towards a career that’s sustainable, but to live happily” as Sofia Martinez describes.
The education provided to the young trainees includes project-based learning and hands-on experience where they learn imperative skills and earn certificates after successfully showing established skills. Trainees also attend weekly classes in partnership with College of Marin in order for recruits to start earning units and finish prerequisites required for Fire Fighter Academy, or two or four year universities.
The hands-on training includes learning home hardening techniques, working in traditional hand crews, learning how to properly use tools and technology (like how to operate a chainsaw), learning to identify plants or invasive species, and interacting with communities in meaningful ways. Technology immersion is especially important as firefighting methods begin to advance.
After FIRE Foundry?
After their first year working out in the field, recruits begin applying to fire academies. FIRE Foundry will also help recruits with skills such as resume writing and interviewing that will help with securing possible well-paying jobs.
The program sees recruits all the way through their career development journey, from participation with CCNB/FIRE Foundry crews, to careers with places like CAL Fire, AA or AS degrees, or working with contract county crews. Recruits are supported through whichever career pathway they choose, whether it is within the fire industry, or in another field where they can apply their learned skills, such as the medical industry.
FIRE Foundry is also supported by many organizations such as Marin County Fire Department, UC Berkeley, and Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority. More information can be found on their website: https://www.firefoundry.org/
SRJC WIldfire Resiliency Program
Earlier this year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors awarded a grant to fund a wildfire resiliency workforce training program at Santa Rosa Junior College that will fund up to three years of workforce training for students.
The program combines college coursework with hands-on training in order for trainees to learn essential skills in the field and important practices such as fire-resilient landscaping, post-fire mitigation, prescribed grazing, and forest fuel reduction. Students then have the opportunity to receive paid internships at SRJC’s Shone Farm or with community partners where wildfire resiliency work is needed.
There are several programs included that students can train in: Natural Resources, Environmental Horticulture, Adult Education, and Animal Science.
In the Natural Resources program, students receive training on fuel-reduction techniques that are useful in reducing future megafires. Students in the Environmental Horticulture program focus on learning fire-safe landscape design and maintenance around residential areas. The Adult Education program will teach students wildfire resilience and home hardening practices in landscape construction and maintenance. The Animal Science program offers education in prescribed fire grazing using animals to manage fire risk.
This SRJC program will enroll 300 students, including an increased rate of underrepresented student populations. Students will be assisted in gaining partnerships with community-based wildfire organizations and have the chance to receive college credits and have the opportunity to have hands-on learning through ten offered internships per academic year with Shone Farm. You can learn more about their program here: https://pr.santarosa.edu/Sonoma-county-grant-srjc-wildfire-resiliency-program
What similar programs are there?
The firefighting workforce has been struggling with drops in career firefighters everywhere. The Woodburn Fire District in Oregon offers a six-week training academy that will teach minimum skills to perform as a part of a four member fire crew. The entire training program takes a year to complete as a whole. The district has also created a new engine that will be staffed with a combination of career and new firefighters.
Pine Island High, has teamed up with their local fire department, is offering Firefighter classes to teens. Students can gain credit taking the course through Riverland Community College where they do a combination of online and independent book work and field training on the weekends. After completing the classes and passing some tests, these students are prepared to become qualified firefighters. The program was put in place in the hopes of recruiting youth into the workforce.
Missouri Southern State University recently celebrated their firefighter training programs’ first graduating class. The courses and certificates received come from MSSU, but the City of Joplin assists with hosting courses and developing the academy. The ceremony honored a Carthage firefighter who was lost on the job through an endowed scholarship through the fire academy.
High schoolers in Youngstown, Ohio can attend firefighter academy through Youngstown’s Choffin Career Center. Courses are intense and include hands-on experience and high expectations not only from their high school, but from the state as well. Students can be state certified if completing the program, and able to apply for jobs in state fire departments.
With a few new workforce training programs emerging here and there, there will hopefully be a much needed resurgence of accessible education and sustainable career pathways in the firefighter industry.
About the Author:
Emily Irving is a student at Sonoma State University and works as an intern for After the Fire: Recover. Rebuild. Reimagine.
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