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Posted: September 11, 2009 12:30 a.m.

DeKalb Tech to train new firefighters

DeKalb Technical College is preparing to launch its Fire Academy in October at its Alcovy Road Campus, in an effort to produce trained firefighters, while saving local fire departments money.

Currently, when local fire departments are looking for new firefighters, they generally hire citizens with no previous training. The fire departments pay these new recruits a salary and benefits for around 10 months, while the recruits complete the necessary state-required training.

"They’re paying their salary and benefits, while getting no benefit from the firefighters," Richard Wieser, the chair of the DeKalb Tech’s public safety and security department. "With limited training and employment budgets, it would be really beneficial to fire departments to be able to hire someone with (the required) certification."

The 20-week fire academy program will give students the state-required training they need to become immediately a firefighter: National Professional Qualifications, level 1. Normally, the fire departments either have to train the newly-hired recruits themselves and have them pass state tests or send the recruits to the state’s fire academy, the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, located in Forsyth. Newton County Fire Chief Mike Satterfield said a new recruit typically makes around $31,000 per year, which would be unproductive money.

Wieser said it was after talking to area fire chiefs that he realized the need for a local fire academy to both save money and provide a trained and ready work force. Satterfield, who sits on DeKalb Tech’s Public Safety and Security Advisory Committee, said the fire academy will also train students in emergency medicine, which is an increasingly needed skill for firefighters.

Covington Fire Chief Don Floyd, who is also the advisory committee, said the academy will be a great partner for local departments.

"It’s a win-win situation for everyone to partner with DeKalb Tech. They’ll provide public safety training in our backyard, so we don’t have to go down to Forsyth," Floyd said.

Floyd said the Covington Fire Department is giving DeKalb Tech a retired 1989 pumper truck, which can no longer be used professionally. In exchange for the truck, which is valued around $37,000, DeKalb Tech will provide several upper-level training courses to the city’s existing firefighters in areas like basic and advanced cardiac life support, leadership report writing, ethics, welding construction and hazardous situations, Floyd said.

Wieser said the academy will be located on the backside of the Alcovy Road campus, next to the Avenue of Champions. In addition to the pumper, the academy will include a burn building, training maze, training tower, retention pond, vehicle burn module, extrication module and other equipment. Wieser said the academy will operate like other academies, with students training in full uniforms and in the same type of environment they will experience in the field.

"There will be very little transition needed to move straight into a department," he said.

Each fire department still has to train new employees on that department’s specific operating practices, but academy graduates should be well prepared to absorb quickly that training, Wieser said.

Although the academy will be set up to train new recruits, DeKalb Tech already has a Fire Science associate degree program in its second year, which is designed to expand on the basic firefighter training. The type of classes offered at the degree program, are the type of classes the Covington Fire Department will be receiving in exchange for its pumper truck. Wieser said the classes will be offered online to work around the firefighter schedule, of 24 hours on, 28 hours off.

"The Firefighter I program (fire academy) is the basic minimum training needed to be firefighter, but the degree will expand on that knowledge base and teach leadership and management classes, incident command, fire service inspections, fire service instructor classes," Wieser said. "Those people will be ready for middle management type of positions within fire departments. A lot of area departments require fire science degrees for promotion."

Satterfield said the county would still employ local fire instructors to do its own advanced training.

While fire academies are common at technical school around Georgia, Wieser said DeKalb Tech’s combination of its law enforcement, EMT and fire academies is unique. By having these students training together, they will be able to learn from each other and will be more prepared to coordinate once they get out in the real world.

Both Satterfield and Floyd said their departments had two firefighter openings and the turnover rate at the departments is low. However, both departments have plans to add some more fire stations within the next few years, assuming money is available. Satterfield said his department hired between 12 to 15 people every time a new station is opened, so the fire academy would be especially helpful at that time. Currently Newton County has around 80 full-time firefighters and around 80 volunteers, while Covington’s fire department has around 55 employees.

Also planned for the future is a joint city-county fire training center. The center would perform the same functions of DeKalb Tech’s fire academy, so it has yet to be determined if and how these two programs would work together. However, DeKalb Tech’s program is expected to provide firefighters to several surrounding counties, not just Newton County.

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