Wednesday, November 8, 2017

CHCCS Now Owns Fire Truck

When the Chapel Hill Fire Department had trouble recruiting new firefighters, they teamed up with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to start the firefighting academy. The Fire Department took a monumental next step by donating a fire truck to the program Wednesday.

The conversation started almost a year and a half ago when Assistant Fire Chief Keith Porterfield noticed a trend.

“When Fire Chief Matt Sullivan and I came to work here back in the 80’s, everyone in the Fire Department and Police Department were from the local area,” Porterfield said. “Now, I’ve had a lot of difficulty recruiting local kids who want to be firefighters.”

Porterfield says a major component of this problem is there was not enough interaction between students and the Fire Department. This helped develop the idea behind the firefighting academy. Students enroll during their sophomore year and learn firefighting skills for the first two years.

“In the firefighting [academy], there’s 31 subjects that the students will take,” said firefighting academy teacher Perry Hall. “They do everything from personal protective equipment, to ladders, forcible injury, vehicle extraction and hose work just to name a few.”

After that, they have an opportunity to take additional classes to learn emergency medical technician skills and take the state exam to become a North Carolina certified medical technician. But there is another benefit for students who choose not to pursue a career in emergency care.

“Their courses articulate to Durham Technical Community College, so they’re already getting college credit for the high school courses they’re taking,” said Kathi Breweur, career and technical education director. “They’re already working on an associate’s degree.”

Traditional learning is still important, but students primarily gain real-life experience in the class. Hall says about 75 percent of the lessons require hands-on learning, which means having the proper equipment is crucial for the students’ success.

“Without the equipment that is required for it, which is pretty much the same that’s needed for an up-and-running fire department, we can’t do the skills and practicals that they are required to do through the state to become certified,” Hall said.

Not being able to become certified would undermine the core idea behind the class. The academy has received a plethora of donations of equipment but knew purchasing a firetruck was both necessary and expensive. Luckily, the Chapel Hill Fire Department had the solution.

“The [firetruck] belonged to our department,” Fire Chief Matt Sullivan said. “There were two firetrucks that were beyond their useful life and not worth a whole lot of money… We would have ended up selling the trucks for scrap metal value and to me, scrap metal has no benefit beyond what we are going to have from these two firetrucks and the use and development of our future fire service.”

Aside from the obvious direct pipeline for new firefighters, Chief Sullivan is hoping for an added benefit from the firefighting academy.

“It’s kind of like a mutual sharing of energy,” Sullivan said. “We can share information and experience with the students, but what I hope is the students can help keep our folks thinking about when they first got engaged in the fire service and maybe infuse some energy into our people.”

Chief Sullivan and Assistant Chief Porterfield hope to see at least half of the 10 students taking the class become career firefighters but recognize the career landscape might not change overnight.

“It’s like planting seeds,” Sullivan said. “We’ll probably see the results in five-six-seven years, but it’ll be well worth the process.”