Fire Science class takes hands-on approach
Perched on the chrome fender of a Truckee Fire engine Wednesday, the two uniformed young men flashed wide smiles as they exchanged small talk and jokes.
Sam Silver and Garrett Schnieder, both 18 and part-time firefighter emergency medical technicians, recently graduated from Truckee High School.
It was in Captain Meredith Watson’s fire-science class last spring that the pair gained their first taste of professional firefighting, which led them to their current positions with the Truckee Fire District.
Inside a gray and red portable classroom behind the station, Captain Watson sorted through stacks of uniforms to be issued to a new crop of students exploring a career in the fire service. A 20-year veteran of California fire agencies, Watson teaches the instructor through the Placer County Office of Education.
Last year she started teaching a new fire-science class that combines classroom instruction and hands-on training to fast-track students who want to begin a career in fire service.
Schnieder always wanted to be a pilot when he grew up, so he earned a pilot’s license before entering Watson’s program.
“Now this is a dream come true,” he said, gesturing to the fire station’s interior.
Schnieder and Silver attended Watson’s class together and said it prepared them for the North Tahoe Fire Academy, where they trained with 16 other cadets.
“In the Academy it was the same sort of testing (as Watson’s class), so while the others were cramming for the final, we were out flying,” Schnieder said.
The fire-science class is part of a bi-county network of vocational education called the 49er Recreational Occupational Program, sponsored by the California Department of Education, the Placer County Office of Education and in association with the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Watson teaches the class in the Sierra Mountain Community Education Center with the assistance of personnel from six local fire-suppression agencies.
High school juniors and seniors are eligible to enroll, but Watson emphasizes that the class is also a perfect opportunity for adults.
“Any adult who is interested in fire service, this a foot in the door for this area,” Watson said.
The class is structured into two semesters. The fall semester focuses on classroom studies of fire science and safety, with hands-on training with local fire agencies two days a week.
In the spring semester, students spend four out of five class days shadowing and assisting local fire agencies as they respond to fires and other emergencies. As part of the work, students throw ladders and pull hoses for the professional fire crews.
Integrating classroom exercises with real-life experience at businesses or agencies, dubbed the community classroom, is the thrust of the 49er ROP program, Watson said. The program offers several classes, and ROP instructors at Truckee High School teach architectural design, video production and graphic communication arts.
49er ROP partners with more than 500 businesses a year to provide on-the-job training, according to Assistant Superintendent Randi Scott of Placer County Schools . The 49er program is one of 74 such programs in the state that provide services to more than 2,000 students.
The occupational program provides entry-level job training, upgrading and retraining of job skills, preparation for higher-level training or education, and such job-seeking skills as resume writing and interview techniques.
“A recent study conducted by UC Riverside revealed that ROP students earned higher wages than their peers, and had more success in securing raises and promotions on the job ” and they enrolled in post-secondary education in very large numbers,” said Placer Superintendent of Schools Alfred Nobili in a 2006 newsletter.
Watson’s students have a chance to work with Truckee Fire , North Tahoe Fire, Northstar Fire and Squaw Valley Fire. Students may also work with California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression and the Truckee division of the U.S. Forest Service. Schnieder and Silver, the Truckee Fire rookies, say they were grateful for the opportunity.
“This can get you a head start on your life if you really want to be a firefighter ” you’re also not stuck in a classroom all day,” Schnieder said. “First ROP, then Chief Bryce Keller sent us to the fire academy, then our EMT class worked out perfectly with the Academy schedule. Then we interviewed with Truckee Fire.”
The two young firefighters will earn their badges at a ceremony next week.
With an eye on the future of California firefighting, Captain Watson summed up the benefit of the community classroom.
“I’m altruistic about this,” she said. “I see these young people as the future of the fire service and I’m interested in being part of that.”