This story originally appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of the LINK Reader.
Campbell County Area Technology Center’s new fire science program trains students to put them two years ahead in their careers by the time they graduate with their high school diploma.
Students like Joseph Butke, a junior at Pendleton County High School, are taking advantage of the program that awards Firefighter Level 1 and EMT certifications by the end of their two years of training. The program was brought to the technology center this year after a need was identified for more regional firefighters.
“This is teaching me now to where as soon as I get my high school diploma, I can go work somewhere, and that’s really important because it takes away that two-year gap it would take to fully train a new employee at 18. And I’m 16,” Butke said.
Campbell County Area Technology Center Principal Carolyn Stewart said a lot of research was put in before bringing fire science to the school district. A viability study was done to prove the need in the area, and two public meetings were held.
Aside from Campbell County students, the technology center also has students from Pendleton, Bellevue, Dayton, Highlands and Bishop Brossart. Stewart said she looked at career and technical programs that each of those schools offered and found a gap in fire science education.
Stewart said she invited business owners and professionals to the last public meeting and asked them this: If the program graduated 20 students in a year, would there be enough openings in the community to hire all 20?
“The Northern Kentucky Chiefs Association did a poll a couple of years ago, and there’s something like over 400 jobs that are going to be available in the next five years due to retirees,” Stewart said. “So, it’s desperately needed in our area.”
The fire science classes are taught by Jake Snodgrass, who retired in May after 29 years as a firefighter.
Snodgrass had experienced a fire science program at a vocational school when he was a senior in high school; now teaching one himself, he sees it as a full-circle moment.
“I knew pretty early in my career that I wanted to get back to this type of environment, wanted to get back to teaching in a vocational school, to get back to this because this is amazing,” he said. “This changed my whole outcome going through this program when I was a senior.”
Aside from the Firefighter Level 1 and EMT certifications, the students will also receive “Stop the Bleed” training — instruction on how to stop a bleeding injury. They will also receive their OSHA 10 — basic safety and health information, four training courses through the National Incident Management System, and be CPR-certified.
Other than classroom work, the students do hands-on training. They have various roof and door types in the classroom they practice with, and they learn about different fire behaviors, hose rolls and how to tie different knots. They also do one-minute drills, putting on their personal protection equipment.
“Everything that we learn here is applicable to the actual service,” Butke said.
Students in the class spend roughly half their school day there. The program has an introduction course for freshman and sophomore students interested in joining as upperclassmen. Stewart said there are currently 15 people enrolled in that. She said there are 20 in the full program, and they hope to double it next year.
Snodgrass said he was able to enter his first fire job two months after he graduated because of the program he went through. He said without it, he probably would have been set back a couple of years.
Up until Campbell County had announced the fire science program creation, Snodgrass said he had no intention of retiring, but he jumped at the opportunity.
“This program works; I’m proof of that,” he said. “I try to explain to them every single day that I am living proof that if this is what you want to do, you can do it. This program will get you there.”
Butke said Snodgrass has insight into things that only a few other firefighters have because he worked as a firefighter at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and at a nuclear lab.
“It’s super cool; I love the guy to death,” Butke said. “He’s a great guy all around.”
The program is new to the district, and therefore, officials are gathering materials as they go. Local fire districts have even donated equipment to the program. Students strap up into their fire suits with department names like “Alexandria” and “Burlington” represented on the back.
Campbell County Fire District 1 donated a firetruck in early October, and most recently, Pendleton County donated an ambulance for the students to use.
“We’ve got the big equipment that we really thought we would never have,” Stewart said. “So that’s really exciting.”
Local departments recognize the need for more people to enter the fire service, Stewart said, and they have been very supportive.
Snodgrass said he struggled in school, and academics didn’t appeal to him. He said as students walk through the hallways in the vocational school, it’s a different atmosphere no matter which occupation they are studying — they want to be there.
Butke said he thinks the program needs to be implemented in more schools.
“I will have everything I need when I’m 18,” he said. “That’s seriously important.”