Years ago when Doug Whittaker and Bill Elderbroom worked side-by-side in the Syracuse Fire Department, they often discussed their mutual vision. It involved the Syracuse Fire Department and Onondaga Community College working together to educate current and future firefighters. “We always talked about the value of sharing resources and hoped one day we’d be in positions to make it happen,” Elderbroom said. Their vision has become reality with Elderbroom in charge of the Syracuse Fire Department’s Training Center and Whittaker serving as coordinator of OCC’s Fire Protection Technology program.
Thanks to an agreement between the College and the Syracuse Fire Department, OCC students in the Fire Protection Technology major now train at the Syracuse Fire Department’s state-of-the-art training facility. In exchange Onondaga puts Syracuse Fire Department officers through a first-line supervisor’s training program. Firefighters who successfully complete the training process become officers and earn college credits. “Working together like this is a dream come true,” said Whittaker. “Future firefighters, current firefighters, and the citizens and property they risk their lives to protect all benefit.”
The Syracuse Fire Department’s Training Center presents OCC’s Fire Protection Technology students with several different scenarios all in one location. During their live fire protocol students have the opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Scenarios they encounter include:
- A two-story house which fills with heavy smoke. Students practice working together and searching for people.
- A “burn building” where students practice rescues while a real fire is burning.
- A roof simulator where students learn how to cut roof panels out of a stable structure rather than practicing on a vacant building which may not be safe.
All of the exercises are done under the watchful eyes of seasoned instructors and firefighters from surrounding departments including North Syracuse, Liverpool, Moyers Corners, and Taunton.
“To have this facility and work with the College is a win-win for both of us,” said Elderbroom. “We use this facility for our career firefighters and those we recruit. It’s great for students to be able to learn here.” Onondaga freshman Brian Burkle Jr. (Vernon Center, NY) agrees. “Training here is an invaluable experience. This facility presents us with every possible scenario we could face.”
The alliance with the Syracuse Fire Department provides Onondaga one more way in which it stands out from other Fire Protection Technology programs. In the classroom the instructors are all current or former firefighters or emergency personnel. “The professors here are great. They have experience they pass down to us which is invaluable,” said Onondaga student Robert Petit (Hartford, NY).
The practical exercises students participate in are coordinated by Steve Wisely, former Commissioner of Onondaga County’s Emergency 911 Center. Every spring semester Wisely oversees an exercise in which students learn how to respond to car accidents and rescue people from their vehicles. The exercise is held on a gravel parking lot on the OCC campus. Four disabled vehicles are set up in separate stations, each providing students with different scenarios:
- Roll over with vehicle on its side
Student learn how to stabilize a rolled over vehicle. They use various types of equipment as they work to rescue accident victims.
- Extrication with small tools
Students cut into a heavily damaged car using small tools and learn how to open doors using basic equipment rather than tools with hydraulics.
- Jaws of Life
Students learn how to cut doors off and move dashboards up and out of the way while using hydraulic tools, including the infamous “Jaws of Life.”
- Rescue techniques
Students learn ways to stabilize a damaged vehicle and strategically remove injured victims. They’re introduced to the latest technology, including a saw made specifically to cut through glass and a metal saw which won’t send sparks flying in a potentially flammable situation.
Overseeing each scenario is an instructor who is a leader in an area fire department and has responded to hundreds of similar emergency calls. “A lot of times you’ll see exercises like this where 30 people are standing around one vehicle. Here we have three or four firefighters at a time spending an hour and 15 minutes at each station before moving to the next one. It’s intense, hands-on training,” said Wisely.
OCC Fire Protection Technology students also have the option of participating in a bunk-in program. Students live in fire departments free of charge in exchange for responding to emergency calls side-by-side with professional firefighters. While bunking-in with the Moyers Corners Fire Department, Petit responded to hundreds of calls. “My experience here was invaluable. Between being a bunk-in, the classroom instructors, and the hands-on training, I’m ready to be a professional firefighter.” The Burlington, Vermont Fire Department agreed. It hired Petit and he will work with his brother Steve, who is also a Burlington firefighter.
Another bunk-in student, Nick Fletcher (Sherrill, NY), is well on his way to a distinguished career. Fletcher bunked-in with the Liverpool Fire Department. “The bunk-in program added a technical aspect no other college in the area could match. It combined hands-on training with a technical education and classroom work.” He was so impressive that shortly before graduating in May 2014, Fletcher was hired by Onondaga County as a fire investigator, trying to figure out the cause and origins of fires. “I enjoy helping families, letting them know how a fire started and giving them closure. A fire can be a very traumatic event.”
While at OCC Fletcher took advantage of an exclusive certification the College offers. Onondaga is the only institution in New York State that certifies to international law, the highest level of certification you can get in the world. It’s called International Fire Service Accreditation Congress, and it is the only certification the U.S. Department of Defense will accept. “The requirements were extremely challenging, but it definitely makes you more prepared when you finish the program.” At the end of the 2013-14 academic year Fletcher was selected as the top student in OCC’s Fire Protection Technology program.
Students like Fletcher, Petit, and Burkle are shining examples of how partnerships can benefit all. “OCC’s Fire Protection Technology program and the students, firefighters, and community who benefit from it are proof of the value of working together,” said Whittaker. “Together we can accomplish anything.”