Students from the area who are interested in a career as a firefighter now have the option of attending Southwestern Community College's fire academy located at the Jerry Sutton Public Safety Training Facility in the Macon County Industrial Park.
For years, local fire departments have used volunteer firemen to save property and lives in Macon County and the credit for being an effective unit can overwhelmingly be attributed to the certification classes that have been offered through SCC.
“For over 20 years, training for fire departments in Macon, Jackson, and Swain county has come through our school,” said Curtis Dowdle, director of Public Safety Training at SCC. “We provide the training through the office of the state fire marshal, so any training that is done in our service area, has to come through us to be a certification course.”
This spring's graduates will be the first to come out of the program, but the idea to conduct a full-scale fire academy had been batted around by officials for some time leading up to its actual implementation. Unfortunately with the lack of paid firemen positions in the area, the numbers never quite added up to justify it. When a few things began to fall in place however, that changed.
“We were approached by Cherokee be- SCC Fire Academy produces first class of firefighters cause they had several vacancies,” said Dowdle. “We ended up with a mixture of students from different counties. This setup allows students to start together and end together. When they finish, they will be eligible to get their level II certification as a firefighter. They also take EMT basic and then they'll do some Hazmat, as well as emergency driver, and some wildland fire instruction. These things will make the graduates very employable.”
Students who enter the program will benefit from the symbiotic relationship that SCC shares with the neighboring fire departments of the region. The school provides the training and as a result of the strong working relationship, the departments often allow their equipment to be used for training exercises, which according to Dowdle is an important component of the academy.
“We rely on them for their equipment, because if we had to buy everything there's no way we could do it,” he says.
Despite the cooperative approach, SCC is the main provider of proper instruction needed to achieve the requirements for graduation. The facility includes 20+ acres of useable space where SCC conducts their training programs. For the fire academy, this includes modern classrooms, a driver training pad, and a live burn building. The burn building is 4,100 square feet and three stories high. It is designed for a variety of training exercises including both fire and smoke exercises as well as rescue operations.
The structure of the academy resembles that of a conventional educational institute with a variety of different classes being offered and taking place over the span of a semester. Beyond that, things begin to look a bit different. Instead of 19th Century Literature or World Civilization, students study fire alarms and communications, chainsaw safety, sprinklers I and II, fire behavior, wildland/urban interface, building construction, and others.
Officials at the facility offer the best of what their resources will allow, but the students who are taking part in the training have strict requirements that must be met in the classroom and out. The aspiring firefighters must maintain an 80 average in their studies to stay in the program and graduate. The state's certification test requires a score of at least 70. Aside from the academic side of the course load, students are also required to perform in rigorous physical training scenarios as well.
According to instructor Travis Scruggs, trainees must also complete Fire Fighter Challenge exercises like the ones that can be seen on ESPN.
“It's a nationally accepted standard that runs in a circuit and it’s related strictly to firefighting procedures,” said Scruggs. “It involves battering down a door, they have to do firefighter hose drags, roll and unroll hoses, pull hose, they have to throw a ladder up, climb it and ring a bell. They will have to go up a stairwell and pull the hose up the building and then come back down. Then they have to drag the CPR dummy. Our dummy weighs 275 lbs. They have to drag it 100 feet and do CPR on it. The whole course has to be completed in nine minutes."
Three physical fitness examinations are conducted during the academy at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the semester. The exercises demand a certain amount of physical involvement, but they, along with the classes, help to produce competent firefighters, ready for public service.
More information can be found at www.southwesterncc.edu or at the Jerry Sutton Public Safety Training Center located within the Industrial Park off of Highway 64 west.