This summer NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) ran our first two Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT) courses in our new home for our California WEMT program near Mt. Shasta at the College of the Siskiyous. The College of the Siskiyous (COS) is home to established programs for Paramedics, EMTs, and Wildland Fire Fighters. This summer we also were able to catch up with Tony Osa, the Fire Program Coordinator at the College of Siskiyous.
How did your path lead you to the College of the Siskiyous?
I was on active duty with the Forest Service Fire Department with seven years to go (I had 35 years already). I was living in the Scott Valley and my neighbor was a full-time fire instructor at the college. I saw an announcement the Fire Program Coordinator/Instructor, applied, and I got the job six years ago. It is very rewarding and keeps me in touch with firefighters and fire training. The wonderful staff and instructors are mostly active duty firefighters from Cal Fire, Forest Service, and local volunteer fire departments.
Tell me a little more about your Fire program:
There are two aspects to the program. One is that we offer an Associates degree in Fire Technology that was started in 1973. The degree, although not required for employment, is a way to be more competitive for initial job placement and career advancement. The second aspect is our Firefighter Academy. Started in 1993, this is a 20-unit, semester-long program that prepares students for immediate employment. Classes run from 7am to 6pm, four days a week, for 18 weeks. Our sleeper program, which involves four departments taking in our students as volunteers living at the station, allows them to gain work experience and earn college credit towards the Firefighter 1 state certification.
What makes you most proud about your students in the program?
Most of our students come as very young high school grads, but some enter in their late 30's. For a lot of them, it is their first time being on their own. To watch them mature from "What's in it for me?" to becoming a team player, and to see them grow academically and physically is very interesting to see. I specifically remember one student's change over time in the fire academy. He was a big, tall kid who was overweight and out of shape. You wouldn't recognize him now. He lost weight and gained strength and confidence. It is also gratifying to get positive feedback from colleagues, parents, and students about the quality of our program.
What are some challenges?
Every semester is a learning curve; discovering what new challenges you will face, and what will test the limits. The syllabus is now 20 pages and it is a challenge to fit the Fire Academy curriculum, which is agency driven, into the college rules and expectations.
Another challenge is trying to figure out ways to provide the needed training to the many volunteer fire companies in the county, some of which are very small and remote, is something that we are constantly striving to improve.
What three things excite you about the aspects or merits of the Fire program at the College of the Siskiyous?
1) We're a small college but we have an incredible program that is recognized within the state of California and nationally, both for its structure and wildland fire components.
2) We have a state of the art training facility that supports the growth and development of our program. We have a live fire training tower on campus for hands-on instruction for our students.
3) Within the fire program, our student success rate and job placement rate exceeds most of the fire academies in other parts of the state. This is due to the great support from the local fire agencies and the incredible faculty and staff that devote many long hours to maintaining the quality and integrity of the fire program.
We also have a lot of information traveling by word of mouth, which is our main form or recruitment. It is rewarding when I go to meetings and say, "I'm from COS," and people respond, "I hear you have a great program." That is always very gratifying to hear from your peers. We get students from all over the state, and even out of state.
How did you hear about the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute?
I first learned about WMI when I was seeking information on the WFA and WFR courses when I was asked to host a class for the local Forest Service. When we found out they were looking for a new facility I invited them to check us out. Shana Tarter, WMI Assistant Director and Gates Richards, Special Programs Director, came out from Wyoming, toured our campus and surrounding area, and liked what they saw.
What excites you about having the WMI WEMT program at COS?
We are all are very excited and can't wait for the next series of classes to start. We're just thrilled we have the ability to offer the classroom space, cafeteria, lodging, and a wilderness type environment right here on campus. Our vice president is actively looking for ways to expand lodging facilities to accommodate more classes. The NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute WEMT and its program and goals fit so well into the Fire and Paramedic program and their goals.
Our program is also looking to expand our outdoor rescue classes. We already offer swift water rescue, avalanche rescue, low-angle rescue, and have the ability to expand our outdoor rescue course offerings. We want to develop a rescue certificate that incorporates a WFR or WEMT course with these rescue classes.
I believe that the partnership between COS and WMI is a great match and will continue to flourish for many years to come. I am happy to have played a small part in developing this great opportunity, along with many other members of the COS administration, faculty and staff. Shana, Gates, and Melissa from WMI have been a pleasure to work with as have all the instructors for the WEMT classes. I look forward to their return to COS, and also look forward to visiting the NOLS campus in Wyoming someday soon.