While other students studied, these firefighting graduates ran into a burning house

While other Skagit Valley College students were preparing for finals last week, the students in the college’s fire protection technology program were putting their training to the test, running through smoke and flames in a simulated house fire.

On Thursday, 12 of the students who will graduate from the program will do so after having benefited from two-year, full-ride scholarships that required them to volunteer at local fire districts.

“We all have our story,” scholarship student Amanda Barclay said. “When I was a kid, I lost my brother, and that’s why I wanted to be an EMT.

Barclay is part of the first class of graduating fire protection technology students to benefit from this scholarship program, which covered the cost of tuition and equipment.

These students will graduate with an associate degree in applied sciences, basic EMT and firefighter certifications and the skills to reach higher qualifications.

“They’ve all turned out to be top-notch,” said David Skrinde, Skagit County Fire District 14 chief and an instructor in the department. “This is the first class I’ve seen where I think all of them will be hired.”

Skrinde told the college about an opportunity to apply for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to fund the scholarships.

In 2015, the college received $537,370 for use over four years. Skrinde said the grant covers 12 scholarships per year.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant is aimed at the recruiting and retention of firefighters. The bulk of it is reserved for education, said Pat McVicker, department chair for the college’s fire protection technology program.

Scholarship students are required to spend 96 hours a month on duty at Skagit County fire districts 6, 13 and 14 while in school.

We sweat and bleed together. Our lives depend on each other.

Scholarship student Amanda Barclay

“They’re competitive the minute they hit the street,” McVicker said. “These are our best-performing kids.”

Skrinde and McVicker said Barclay is the top performer in the graduating class. She recently received the department’s outstanding student award.

Skrinde called her a mentor and unofficial supervisor to some of the younger students in the college program. He said he’s relied on her to independently find and help struggling students.

Barclay said the college program, like a real fire department, does better when everyone does their best.

“We sweat and bleed together. Our lives depend on each other,” she said. “I joke about us creating a trauma bond.”

McVicker said these students aren’t just learning and working together, but often are living together at the fire stations. Their support for each other, he said, has been encouraging to see.

“And that brings everyone up, even the non-scholarship students,” he said.

In talking about the scholarship program, Skrinde, as well as many of the graduates, focused most on the networking and job-readiness opportunities the program provides.

When he started teaching in 2012, Skrinde quickly realized that classroom learning couldn’t quite simulate what it is like to be in a real fire department. That’s when he got interested in bringing students with him to work.

In addition to on-the-job experience, the scholarship students take the standard courses.

They learn how to apply and interview for firefighter jobs. Public safety jobs, he said, require many levels of interviews, and not all graduates are prepared for how to present themselves as the most qualified candidates.

By working with professional firefighters, the students are building connections with future employers, Skrinde said.

While he said the college reapplied for a SAFER grant last March, he plans on finding a way to continue the scholarship program regardless.

With daytime volunteer numbers at county fire district stations falling, Skrinde said the scholarship program has proven to be a great way to keep firehouses fully staffed.

Even if the fire districts had to pay for these scholarships on their own, he said it would be cheaper than hiring part-time firefighters.

“There are days when I have six or seven college students sitting around the fire station,” he said.

With extra staff on hand, Skrinde said his department has been able to work more proactively, hosting more public education and pre-fire planning workshops.

“We’re out there doing more for our communities than we’ve been able to before,” he said.

Barclay said the collaboration with professional firefighters has been beneficial for the scholarship students as well.

She’s worked with all three participating fire districts and said the more experienced firefighters she’s been around have been a unique source of information to complement what she has learned in class.

“What better knowledge base could you have?” she said. “They’re an incredible resource.”