RFD, RHS collab promotes job readiness, community safety
Eight students, all juniors and seniors, are taking part in a new program that started last fall to train them in fire science.
With the Russellville Fire Department reporting last April that 55 percent of the department was either eligible or would be eligible to retire within the next five years, it’s a measure intended to attempt to mitigate some of the impact that will be felt as those firefighters retire.
“We are very excited about our partnership with the Russellville Fire Department,” explained Shelley Montgomery, director of career and technical education at Russellville City Schools. “It’s a win-win for our students and community.
“Our first year is off to a great start. Two of our students have already earned their telecommunication certification, and several have indicated a desire to pursue careers in public safety, including one as a firefighter and one as a paramedic.”
Montgomery said the class allows the students to learn more about careers in fire science while earning industry-recognized credentials and getting a jump-start on their future careers, also helping provide a “much-needed workforce pipeline” to the fire department.
“The goal of the career tech programs is always to provide students with career opportunities that are in demand in our area,” she added. “This allows our students to learn hands-on skills from firefighters currently working in the field while also making us able to supply the fire department with the skilled workers they need.”
Montgomery said the plan is to open the program up to freshmen and sophomores in the fall. This year’s program is restricted to juniors and seniors. She explained what’s under development is a multi-year plan for the program.
Current students took Firefighting I last semester and are taking Firefighting II this semester. Beginning in the fall, three additional courses will be offered — Fire Science I, Fire Science II and Emergency Services and Management.
Montgomery said the multi-year plan is for ninth and 10th graders to take Fire Science I and II, 11th graders to take Firefighting I and II and 12th graders to take Emergency Services and Management.
RFD’s Lt. John James is the lead instructor for the program. Sgt. Chris Watkins and Sgt. Grant Tarascou serve as substitutes.
James said last semester’s course, which meets national standards, resulted in public safety dispatcher certification.
“We’ll finish the second course, which is for certification as a volunteer firefighter, at the end of this school year,” James explained. “This also provides the students credit toward becoming certified firefighters.”
James explained Alabama law requires a career paid firefighter to receive 400 hours of initial training. After that, they take a series of state certification exams, and, if they pass those, then they’re certified with the basic requirements to be a firefighter.
“The courses we’re doing in high school will give them 160 hours of that credit if they pass all of our tests,” James added. “So, they would be able to leave high school and, within 240 more hours – about six weeks of training – they would be able to meet the requirements to be a career firefighter.”
James said the students are doing “exceptionally well,” noting one student has already said he wants to go into fire science as a career. “He’s actually taking his EMT class, through the fire college, at the same time he’s taking our class, and when he graduates, he will be six weeks away from having both his firefighter and his EMT requirements to be a career firefighter.”
He said this initial class of students training in fire science is encouraging for the future of firefighting as well as providing students with awareness and accessibility to more easily pursue a different career option.
“Over the last five or six years, public safety has seen a tremendous decrease in applicants for jobs,” James explained. “Through our program, the students are exposed to the dispatcher side, the firefighting side and the medical side. We give them the basics of each of those three paths, and they can apply for a job and take any advanced training they need to move on in those respective paths.”
James said one student is fully on board with pursuing a fire science career and a couple of others are considering it, along with other options, including becoming an EMT for an ambulance service or working as a dispatcher.
“Our goal is bringing exposure to public safety career paths and making the students career ready when they leave high school,” he added. “One of the key things we’re letting students know is that public safety professions have retirement and health benefits. Within six to eight weeks of finishing the high school program, they can be ready to be employed as a career firefighter, and their first year of salary would be very close to what a first-year teacher makes after going to college for four years.”
James said one of the features of the program, separate from some of the other programs in the career tech school, is there’s “absolutely no cost to the school system or the students for us to conduct this program,” noting the Alabama Fire College provides the materials for the training and testing, and his salary is paid by the fire department. On the school’s part, what’s required is allowing space to conduct the program.
“So it’s a win-win for everybody,” he continued. “After graduating, and this is one of the good things about the fire service, once you receive your minimum training, all the additional training needed as you advance is paid for by the fire department.”
James said “it’s been a great career” in describing his own path in the fire service. “You’re serving your community and being able to help people during their worst times is rewarding. Being able to teach these students and try to instill in this generation that sense of value and community service is a wonderful part of this and I’m proud to be able to be part of this.”