Starkville Fire Department firefighters load a training dummy onto a stretcher during a training exercise earlier this year. The department is working with Meridian Community College through a program that can allow its firefighters to get associate's degrees in fire protection services. Photo by: Courtesy photo
March 14, 2019 10:40:57 AM
Lt. Roosevelt Harris is closer now than he's ever been to getting his first degree.
Harris, 48, is a 24-year veteran of the Starkville Fire Department. He's one of 20 of the department's firefighters participating in a program at Meridian Community College to receive associate's degrees in fire protection technology.
The program allows firefighters who have already received training from other emergency service training institutions, such as the Mississippi Fire Academy, to take truncated versions of classes for a steep discount -- only $40, compared to $300 to $400 for similar education at the state fire academy -- through the Recognition of Prior Education and Service (R.O.P.E.S.) process.
Harris, who hopes to finish the two-year program this year, said he decided to participate after Starkville Fire Chief Charles Yarbrough and Patrick Warner, the program coordinator and firefighter with SFD, introduced it to the department.
"I always wanted to go back to school," Harris said. "The opportunity was there, but I just never acted on it. When they came up with this, I thought it would be good to further my education a little more in case I wanted to be promoted to that next level.
"This would be my first (degree)," Harris continued. "I got out of school and got myself a job. I didn't think I'd need any education at this stage of my career. You never get too old to learn, and it's not hard. It's just a matter of time, like any other thing."
MCC is the only public school in the state to offer an associate of applied science in fire protection technology. Though the college's program is not new, SFD's partnership with it is more recent. Yarbrough said it's been about a year, and the department is reaching the point where some firefighters are nearing completion.
Yarbrough said SFD has pushed education in recent years and has introduced requirements for firefighters to have at least an associate's degree to advance to the battalion chief rank and beyond.
"We have found that the better-educated firefighters are, the better firefighters they make overall," Yarbrough said.
Firefighters can take the classes online, and some can have the costs of six to nine credit hours reimbursed, through the city's allowances for continuing training. Yarbrough said that firefighters who make As in their classes are eligible for 100 percent reimbursement, while Bs are eligible for 75 percent and Cs are eligible for 50 percent. He said class reimbursement has to be approved by the board of aldermen and fit within the department's training budget.
Warner added the program also offers scholarships and tuition assistance.
SFD is also working to partner with Columbia Southern University for a similar program, Yarbrough said. Though working with the colleges may offer a more efficient method for firefighters to get their classroom education, Yarbrough said SFD will continue to work with the state fire academy for hands-on training.
Brian Arnett, another lieutenant with SFD, has three courses left to take before he's finished with the program. Arnett had a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in exercise physiology before joining the fire department.
However, he said the fire service has changed so much through the years from just fighting fires that he thought it would be valuable to further his education in it.
"One thing it's opened my eyes up to has been laying out guidelines for how we perform with a mass casualty incident or dealing with changes in demographics, whether that's socio-economic or through a foreign population, like what we have with the university," Arnett said. "That can be dealing with changes in the demographics of the fire department itself.
"I'm 47, so the world I was brought into and the world of a 20-year-old today -- it's pretty different," he added. "So being able to communicate with people from a wide range of demographics has been pretty beneficial."
Warner said the program offers multiple benefits, to the city and to SFD.
"The city is going to benefit from it because they get a better, more qualified firefighter," Warner said, "because they're more knowledgeable to do their job and protect the citizens there. The city is going to benefit. Also, the fire department will benefit because there's more training. It will help with their retention rate because you know, if you've got somebody who's putting more hours in, they're more likely to stay with the department."
There are multiple benefits for firefighters themselves, Warner said. He said some enroll in the program because they've never gone to college and want their children to go to college and want to demonstrate that getting a degree is possible.
For others, it helps lay the foundation for life after fire service.
"A lot of people in my field go to work for big corporations as safety professionals or emergency managers for Mississippi, like with MEMA or FEMA," Warner said. "A lot of people when they leave the fire service transfer over and this helps get those jobs because a lot of those jobs require you to have a degree."
For Harris, the program has offered a chance to further his education. He said he's learned things he feels he could only get from taking college courses.
Beyond that, he said, he's working toward a personal accomplishment.
"When I get done, I'll see the fruits of my labor and I'll be pretty proud," he said.
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