Cooperative effort could lead to fire science class

By Robert Pierce
Liberal First – May 25, 2018

Fire departments throughout the region are lacking in workers, and a program will soon be available at Liberal High School to help train workers for both the Liberal and Seward County fire departments, as well as those in other parts of the country.

“We are extremely excited at Liberal High School to be offering for our students next year a fire science program and the opportunity to gain their credentials to become firefighters,” LHS Principal Ashley Kappelmann said Wednesday at a joint meeting between several local entities.

Kappelmann credited LHS teacher Wes Fox with much of the work to get the project off the ground.

“Mr. Fox has worked very hard with the city, and we’ve also been in discussions with the county as well on what the programs look like,” she said.

Kappelmann also praised the work of Seward County Community College for collaboration on the program as well as the Liberal Fire Department.

“The city fire department has been amazing to help us get this going and guide us in the right direction,” she said. “We’ve had the opportunity to meet with the college and the high school, along with the county, to talk about what programs what we’re doing and basically how this is a service back to our community to be able to provide and train workers that we desperately need in Liberal.”

Fox, who is a volunteer firefighter with the LFD, talked about the training needed to become an instructor in fire science.

“You have to have a Firefighter I certification, fire science or a Fire Instructor I certification,” he said. “They worked with me over the last year to get these certifications that I have to have.”

Fox said those who take advantage of the fire science course will get a great benefit.

“It’s a good career, and it’s a good choice for students,” he said. “Not everyone intends to go to college. There’s plenty of careers and opportunities out there for students. They may not have a direction or a purpose or even know what’s available to them.”

Fox emphasized the demand for firefighters in the region.

“There’s openings in both departments here in town,” he said. “There’s openings all through Western Kansas. There’s openings in Oklahoma, and once the kids get these certifications, it’s a certification they can take with them to California or Texas, New Mexico, anywhere in the country because it’s a national certification.”

Fox said just as with many local businesses and entities, keeping young people in the area is important as well.

“We want to grow our own people, and we want to grow our own people with this as well,” he said.

Liberal Fire Chief Kelly Kirk said he and Seward County Fire Chief Andrew Barkley are looking to get more firefighters to their departments.

“What I hope to get out of this program is employees who will work here in Liberal and stay here in Liberal,” he said. “I’ve been in a hiring position with the Liberal Fire Department since 2000, when I became deputy chief. I’ve been chief for 10 years.”

Kirk said having the fire science program could likely reverse a bad trend for both his department and others like it.

“In my time with the fire department, we’ve had more than 150 employees come and go,” he said. “That’s huge turnover. It’s expensive to the city. It’s expensive to the taxpayers.”

Kirk said the program would likewise mean local education would be available for those who would want to become firefighters.

“I have to take them and direct them to Butler County Community College, Hutchinson Community College, one of the community colleges in the state that offers a fire science program,” he said. “I want them to mature at age 20 before they start making decisions and driving the size of trucks that we drive.”

Kirk said he would like those who come to work for him to have a two-year associates degree and be work ready, and he said the benefits of becoming a firefighter are great.

“These students are looking for roughly 11 credit hours of college credit to be just baseline hireable for a fire department,” he said. “Male or female with an associates degree in fire science could start out with great benefits and $32,000 a year. That’s not a bad gig for someone two years out of high school in a career that he can have for 20, 25, 30 years that’s going to really take care of him. I tell people you won’t get rich, but it’ll be the most rewarding career you’ve ever had. The benefits are great, and the retirement would be great for you in the end. I’m looking for employees, and that’s what this program to me will provide.”

Kirk said when youth finish the fire science program, they should be ready for the workforce in the firefighting field.

“They’re hireable for me and Chief Barkley,” he said. “They’re hireable for any other Western Kansas town. They’re usually Kansas kids who were born and bred and more likely to stay here than a kid who comes here from Montana and goes back home after two years.”

Kirk said the program is beneficial to the city, the county, the school district and SCCC, just four of the seven entities represented at Wednesday’s joint meeting at Eisenhower Middle School.

Seward County Administrator April Warden attended some of the meetings to plan out the fire science program, and she said she liked what she saw.

“I saw how well everybody worked together from the college,” she said. “I don’t think anybody realizes the time they put into it with the work to get everything through the different agencies to make it happen, and it was awesome to see it come together.”


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