Come Thursday, Bixby Fire Chief Joey Wiedel will be getting some reinforcements.
Working in collaboration with Oklahoma State University, Tulsa Technology Center launched a firefighting academy at its Peoria campus in September. The 16 participants, including five Bixby Fire Department recent hires, will graduate on Thursday, completing in a little more than two months a program that is normally stretched out over two or three years.
For Wiedel, that condensed timeline means his department will be able to keep up with a growing call volume, a planned expansion and a shallow applicant pool. The Bixby Fire Department currently gets about 2,800 calls per year, but the department is slated to start taking on ambulance services as well by 2024, prompting the need to start bringing on reinforcements.
“There’s a retention problem of getting firefighters and police officers,” he said. “Used to be, we’d have 100 people apply for one spot. Now we’re looking at 30 or 40 for four or five spots.
“It used to be you’d have to be sponsored to go get this training. This is something we’re bringing that people can start to gear up, turn this into a career and get on to a fire department around the region.”
The state’s CareerTech system already has a partnership with OSU to provide training for volunteer firefighters.
OSU is the only site in the state to be accredited through the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress. For Oklahoma’s professional firefighters, that means the training and certification route has gone through Stillwater with classes offered one at a time on an intermittent basis.
By comparison, participants in the Tulsa Tech program are in class 10 or more hours per day, five days per week for 10 weeks. The Tulsa Tech students cover the same material as their colleagues who go through OSU, including how to prepare and wear the necessary personal protective equipment, how to extinguish fires caused by flammable liquids and gases, how to respond to car crashes, and even how to talk to children about the importance of stop, drop and roll.
“It’s a huge savings when you look at logistics of travel, food, hotels, the timeline and overtime budgets,” Wiedel said. “There’s a lot of factors that this has taken off of the table that has made this very appealing to us.”
All 16 academy participants, including Mitchell Moore, have post-graduation employment lined up with a local fire department.
Moore joined the Bixby Fire Department earlier this year after completing paramedic school. He did not have any substantive firefighting experience before starting the academy but said he now feels prepared to face a burning building.
“Having zero fire experience and coming in as a paramedic, I had never put on PPE, just like anyone else who might have just come in off of the street,” Moore said. “I had never put it on before. Within the first week, we’re getting it on in under 30 seconds and are ready to run into a building.”
Since launching the program, Tulsa Tech Director of Business and Industry Services Matt Litterell said it has opened up additional doors for training partnerships with fire programs. He said there is interest in offering the firefighter academy again in the future to accommodate hiring needs.
“Statistics and fire chiefs around the area are telling us that that firemen are retiring. Their average age is pretty high,” Litterell said. “We expect there to be a bubble, so there will probably have to be more training for the next few years, then potentially taper off after the hiring waves subside.”