Fighting Fire With Saints
KSCB News - May 30, 2018 6:30 pm
By Rachel Coleman
It’s a quiet Friday afternoon without a cloud in the sky — except for a dark plume of smoke spiraling up from the north end of Liberal.
Firefighters Braden Steckel and Jake Pewthers pause from the puzzle of a faulty electrical system on one of the Seward County tanker trucks to listen to the radio’s crackle. Moments later, they’re gone, suited up, lights and siren blaring from a completely different truck.
In just three months, they’ll be training students from Seward County Community College to replicate those actions.
SCCC’s newly-designed Resident Firefighter Program will launch its first cohort in August with six applicants who meet the criteria: full-time students with an interest in fighting fires and a willingness to serve. In return for joining the on-call team of Seward County Fire & Rescue as full-time residential members, the students will receive free housing at a new station immediately adjacent to SCCC, meals through the SCCC cafeteria and at the station house, tuition reimbursement, and on-the-job training that interlocks with their courseload. It’s a generous offer that comes with a two-year commitment.
“It doesn’t matter to us if you’re going to school for corrosion, for nursing, for auto tech,” says SCFR chief Andrew Barkley. “We want a student who wants some help with college, is willing to have an unusual job, and will learn.”
Dr. Todd Carter, SCCC Vice President of Academics, sees the partnership as a win-win-win, for students, the community, and the college.
“Education is a sum of all of our life experiences and at college, the experiences inside and outside of the classroom have equal importance,” he said. “We provide opportunities to work in teams, develop new skills, think critically, and apply knowledge in all of our programs. As a member of the resident firefighter program and Seward County fire department, the personal growth and development of these skill sets in a short amount of time would be very difficult to duplicate outside of this unique opportunity. At the same time, students are providing a very important service to the communities in Seward County and beyond.”
At a recent multi-board meeting, stakeholders from the county, city, school board, hospital, Chamber of Commerce and college echoed Carter’s perspective.
“I’m so thankful to be able to collaborate so well with the college, and all these community boards,” said Liberal Fire Department Chief Kelly Kirk, whose firefighters currently share the city’s north station on Fifteenth Street with the county crew. The introduction of a fire science course at Liberal High School and the college’s resident fire fighter program, “is a service back to our community to train workers we desperately need.”
County Commissioner Jim Rice, himself a rural resident, agrees. The fires have come “pretty dang close” to his home in recent years.
“Last year, that fire started up, the wind was blowing out of the south, then it reversed, and wiped out about four of my neighbor’s houses,” he said. “The fire got right up to the windbreak. If it had made it through, we would have lost ours.”
Thanks to SCFR, county road and bridge, and an farmer who tilled up a dirt barrier, the Rice home survived. The experience reinforced the rural reality that “it’s pretty important to have a fire department that is capable of reacting when necessary,” Rice said. “We need somebody to be there to head that direction. We need some kind of system put in place to help provide more volunteers, and I think this program is certainly going to help get more hands on deck.”
A California native who’s been on the job for more than 20 years, Barkley saw a similar program in place at University of California Davis, He believes the SCCC partnership program can answer that challenge.
“Across the nation, there has been a drastic decline in those paid-call firefighters — lots of people refer to them as ‘volunteers,’” Barkley said. “Believe it or not, 10 to 15 years ago, there were a lot of stay-at-home moms who were also firefighters. Not so many today. The economy has changed, and employers no longer let their personnel leave to fight fires.”
During Barkley’s three-year tenure at the helm of SCFR, he’s overseen the hiring of Deputy Chief John Steckel, and three full-time firefighters to boost the dwindling pool of “volunteer” firefighters.
“When you have some big fires and lose some houses, you gain support,” Barkley said wryly, adding that “the best thing I can tell you about that is we were able to do so without raising the taxes.” Though many taxpayers don’t realize it, Barkley said, the county fire department exists as its own taxing entity. Continued declines in residents willing to serves as per-call, “volunteer” firefighters mean the SCFR budget could double or even triple over the next few years. At this time, fire trucks routinely answer calls for structure fires with 10 fighters on duty; the ideal number is 18.
The first cohort of six resident firefighters will be joined by five new applicants each subsequent year.
Over time, that adds up to a combined force of 10 SCCC resident firefighters. Full-time firefighters Pewthers and Braden Steckel will take on the primary responsibility of training the SCCC Resident Firefighters, living at the new station with them in turn.
Kirk estimates that fire departments in this half of Kansas — from Pratt west — will need around 200 firefighters in the coming years, “and I hate having to direct them to other communities to receive that training,” he said. “Why not train our own, right here at home?” A student survey at LHS identified 55 current high school students with a strong interest in firefighting. That bodes well for the SCCC program, and the region as a whole.
Carter, who served for 15 years as a volunteer firefighter in the Oklahoma Panhandle, is familiar with the need.
“It is a tremendous responsibility to provide fire protection and emergency services to rural areas,” he said. “From1985 to 2000, I saw a drop in the number of volunteers available for fire calls as the number of farm families and local employers diminished.”
Barkley began his firefighting career in California where regulations vary, but on-the-job training is the key for a would-be firefighter.
“In Kansas, you can read the book and take your certification test, but if you don’t have experience, you’re going to have a hard time getting a job,” he said. “What we are offering SCCC students in an opportunity to get started with a whole set of job skills, regardless of whether they intend to follow that path for a career in firefighting. It’s also a chance for them to get a taste of it and find out if they’re suited for it.”
The SCCC resident firefighter program will begin with a three-week, intensive training session at the beginning of August. The full-time, immersive session will thoroughly orient the six newcomers to the basics.
“They’ll move into the new station just south of SCCC’s main campus, paired by shift. Be provided uniforms, gear, and start learning everything that’s typically covered in a Firefighter I class,” said Barkley. “Once they’ve completed that, they can take the test and get their certification.”
Classes at SCCC begin mid-August, and the resident firefighters “will be living what is like to be a firefighter, except at college,” Barkley said. “The students will be paired with the career guys who work full-time, and they’ll be on shift 48 hours at a time. When they have class, they’ll go, but they’ll take a radio and be ready to answer the call if one comes in. When class is over, they’ll go back to the station. If you’re on shift, you’re on shift and you do the responsibilities there, cleaning, yard work, vehicle maintenance. There’s down time when the chores are done … they’re going to get the full aspect of eating meals together, working out together, checking equipment together, working as a team over the two years they’re in the program.”
Barkley realizes the first year will require tweaks to the plan, and flexibility on the part of students, fire personnel, and SCCC faculty.
“We know they’ve got to go to school, take their classes,” Barkley said. He noted the program requirements include a minimum GPA of 2.5 with a course load of 15 hours. It’s a heavy load, he acknowledged, “but that is the kind of person we need, someone who can take on a lot of responsibility, and learn how to handle it as they mature.”
“If a fire comes in, they’ll be allowed to leave class, come to fire station, get on truck, respond to the call. On weekends and evenings, they’re having dinner, reviewing class or home work. When we catch the big fires and calls, you’re looking at an immediate response out the door of 11 people, including our career person. That makes a tremendous difference.”
Carter sees benefits for students as well.
“The program provides funding for college expenses with the flexibility for the student to attend college full time,” he said. It’s work worth doing, as research shows that “all of these factors substantially increase student success and completion.”
With applications for the coming year available at the college, Barkley hopes to see a rush of applicants for the SCCC Resident Firefighter program The firefighting life may not be for everyone, he said, but it’s a good life.
“You’ll learn what it is to be part of a family,” he said. “You spend spend those hours on call together, and it becomes a brotherhood, a family for male and female firefighters. You eat together, you work out together, you develop a really tight bond. You know that if something goes wrong, that’s the person who’s gonna save you.”
Applications for the two-year program are available on campus at SCCC in the admissions department, with online application access planned soon. Students who are interested may call Chief Barkley at (620) 626-3267 email [email protected] for more information about the interview process, physical strength and agility tests, and other details.