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On Fire

CNM’s new Fire Science program prepares students for quicker entry into professional firefighting
On Fire
CNM Fire Science students attack a flammable liquids fire at the New Mexico Firefighters’ Training Academy in Socorro.

May 17, 2018

Earlier this spring, Sean Burns walked out of a concrete building filled with burning wood pallets, pulled off his breathing mask and fire gear, cleared the sweat from his eyes, and started grinning from ear to ear.

Burns, 21, was all smiles because he’s always wanted to work for a fire department and is finally getting his chance to train as part of CNM’s new 12-week, 150-hour Firefighter 1 and 2 theory and lab class. After weeks of classroom time, he and other CNM students were on the ground in Socorro at the New Mexico Firefighters’ Training Academy to get hands-on experience with everything from extinguishing a residential structure fire to rescuing fire victims.

“This job just fits my personality,” says Burns, whose mom works for the Albuquerque Fire Department. “I like the adrenaline, I like the physical work, and I like being able to help people on their worst day.”

The Firefighter 1 and 2 class is part of a larger restructuring in CNM’s Fire Science program. Previously, students graduated with the structural firefighting associate degree but still had to be certified as a structural firefighter. Now, students can get their associate degree and graduate as a certified Structural Firefighter 2 or a Wildland Firefighter Type 1, depending on what career path they choose.

This is a big change because it means Structural Firefighter graduates will have the same training as anyone who’s gone through a traditional fire academy, making them eligible for a job with smaller departments like those in Belen or Valencia County. Students who graduate with the Wildland certification will be eligible for Squad Boss (a position that typically manages about three other people) once they’ve gained the necessary experience out in the field.

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CNM students run a drill at the New Mexico Firefighters' Training Academy.

The other big news is that the entire CNM Fire Science program is now recognized by the National Fire Academy (NFA) and the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education initiative (FESHE). This ensures CNM’s curriculum is on par with other recognized higher-education curriculums around the country, and it allows students to receive National Fire Academy Certificates for courses taken at CNM. These certificates will help students as they apply for fire service jobs in New Mexico and other states.

Charlie Molinari, the Fire Science program director, says the changes came about after a program review in 2016, and they’ll officially go into effect for the 2018 Fall Term.

“Ultimately, we want students that graduate to be employable,” he says. “There’s no point in getting a two-year degree and not being qualified upon graduation.”

The road to a job will be slightly longer for Burns because he wants to work for the Albuquerque Fire Department, which requires all accepted applicants to attend Albuquerque’s Fire Academy whether or not they’re already certified. CNM and the Albuquerque Fire Department have strong connections. In January, Paul Dow was named as the new fire chief for the AFD. Dow, an 18-year veteran of AFD, had also been a part-time CNM Fire Science instructor for the previous 11 years.

One of CNM’s current Fire Science instructors is Joe Kandel, who is also the senior instructor for the AFD academy.

“To have the students be able to learn hands-on from instructors like us who are in the field and working for local departments, that’s definitely a leg up,” Kandel says.

Carol Ash, the associate dean for CNM’s School of Health, Wellness & Public Safety, says the restructuring, and more specifically the hiring of instructors like Molinari and Kandal who can teach the most up-to-date techniques, is an intentional move.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure our programs are flexible and nimble so we can adjust curriculum to meet the workforce needs,” she says.

Now that Burns has graduated, he’ll apply to the AFD academy and continue the quest to serve his community.

“About half-way through the Firefighter 1 and 2 class I knew without a doubt that this was the job for me,” he says. “Everyone wants to find their purpose, and this is definitely my purpose.”

Sean Burns.