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Finding the helpers: Fire and rescue at rural community colleges

Did you know that in rural communities, local workers like farmers and mechanics used to leave their jobs when they heard there was a fire to help put it out? As many of these jobs shift to urban communities, rural areas have lost these local workers as a resource for their volunteer fire departments, leaving many with a volunteer shortage.

Rural communities also face other unique challenges when it comes to fire and rescue operations such as longer commuting distances and rural-specific accidents, like farm accidents. Read on to learn more from three rural community colleges offering fire and rescue training programs: McDowell Technical Community College in Marion, Cleveland Community College in Shelby, and Surry Community College in Dobson. 

McDowell Tech

Training at the McDowell Fire, Rescue, and EMS College. Courtesy of Michael Lavender/McDowell Tech

Local fire departments around Marion joined forces for training in 1977, igniting the start of McDowell Tech’s fire school and fire department collaboration.

“Which in ’77 was not that common,” said Brad Ledbetter. “It is now.”

Ledbetter, a volunteer at the fire department for 38 years and an employee of McDowell Tech since 1992, recently retired from his position as director of continuing education — but not without leaving behind a legacy first. The third weekend in March, McDowell Tech hosts the Fire, Rescue, and EMS College, bringing together over 1,100 students to train and complete certifications. (Don’t worry, it takes about 340 hours to complete the entire firefighter program in North Carolina — not one weekend.)

“As far as numbers go, we’re the largest school in the state of the community colleges that do weekend classes like we do,” Ledbetter said. “Murphy to Manteo is what we say, that’s pretty much our coverage. We get people from the coast every year.”

Community colleges across the state hold weekend fire schools as an opportunity for students to take a lot of hours in a short amount of time. McDowell Tech offers certificate and class credits in firefighter/rescue skills, driver operator classes, EMS, and firefighter certification, among others. Some of the over 80 classes include: basic self defense for first responders; explosives, bombs, and booby traps; fire scene digital photography; ladders; ropes; forcible entry; arson detection for the first responder; and rock climbing rescue for emergency services. 

Training at the McDowell Fire, Rescue, and EMS College. Courtesy of Michael Lavender/McDowell Tech

“A lot of them are young, and I got a little teary thinking these people are here because they are going to put their lives on the line,” said Madalyn Gaito, executive assistant to the president and a volunteer at the fire college.  “They were all so eager to learn, but I thought, ‘They’re going to go into some really serious, dangerous situations in their career.'” 

But with as many students that come to the college, Ledbetter recognizes that many departments are short-staffed and in need of volunteers.

“It’s hard to get people to commit to the time. You have your business meetings, you have your trainings, and then you have your responses,” Ledbetter said. “It’s hard to get people to volunteer to do that anymore. It’s really becoming a problem.”

Brad Ledbetter. Courtesy of McDowell Tech

He said he has seen some success with Career and Technical Education (CTE) in local high schools that have incorporated EMT, firefighter, and emergency management courses. The fire department also has a growing junior program that increased from five to 10 slots.

“The kids don’t know it if you don’t go out there and talk to them,” Ledbetter said, adding that getting volunteers before they start families and have children makes a difference. 

However, even with staffing challenges, Ledbetter said McDowell County has a strong spirit of cooperation when it comes to emergency services.

“McDowell County is known for the emergency services agencies working together very well,” he said. “We don’t have a ‘this is my turf or your turf.’ We all come together — EMS, the emergency management, the rescue, the fire — everybody works together.”

As Ledbetter reflected on his fire rescue experience with McDowell Tech, it was clear this work was hard for him to retire from.

“I love what I’m doing,” Ledbetter said. “I love working with these people.”

Cleveland Community College

At Cleveland Community College’s nine-week Fire Academy at the Brown Emergency Training Center, you will find trainees doing CrossFit two days a week and agility training two days a week.

“They have to pass a certain agility level to be able to get a job,” said the center’s coordinator, Jimmy Hensley.

Approximately 4,000 people come through the center’s various programs each year, including 800 at the annual fire/rescue college.

“It used to be, to be a fireman 30 years ago, you just joined. Training was taken serious, but it was mostly done in-house,” said Hensley. “Now to get certification they have to come through us.”

Still, even with popular fire rescue programs at Cleveland Community College, Hensley pointed to a common issue: the firefighter shortage, which is a consequence of a broader shift in the way of life in rural communities.

“In Cleveland County and in most of the rural counties across the nation, 30 to 40 years ago, everybody worked in their community. They were farmers, they were mechanics,” Hensley explained. “So in the area that I’m in, in Grover, you had all these people that worked in the town and when there was a fire they would leave, because they were either self-employed or they were farmers and they would leave [to volunteer].”

Hensley also noticed a change in people who join the fire departments. Firefighting used to be a part of family history, passed down as a career in certain families.

“Now that’s not the case,” Hensley said. “They leave McDonald’s and come out here and take the academy and go to work as a fireman. So it is changing. Instead of it being a direct link to a family history, it’s now anybody.” 

While most of the attendees to the fire college do want a job, others just want to be better volunteers. Still, the shortage issue remains, and Hensley says he’s not sure what the answer is.

“The only thing to kind of fix it is more and more paid staff, which is higher taxes and everything, so it’s a tough spot,” said Hensley.

Sidenote — EducationNC reported a fun fact in our “58 stats for 58 community colleges” regarding Cleveland Community College’s rescue work: Cleveland Community College received $50,000 in 2016 from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission in support of agricultural machinery rescue training. According to Cleveland Community College, “the project will feature mobile training equipment and materials that can be taken into tobacco-dependent, agricultural-dependent, and distressed communities. There they will train farmers, their families, farm workers, and emergency personnel on ways to respond to farm accidents.” These accidents include agricultural-specific accidents like grain bin accidents.

Surry Community College

Fire and rescue at Surry Community College. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Surry Community College’s fire and rescue programs draw in approximately 5,000 students each year from the I-77 corridor — mostly Surry and Yadkin County residents, but also some from Stokes and Wilkes counties. The college’s fire and rescue facilities include residential propane storage tanks, the Bobtail delivery truck propane system, flammable liquid storage tanks, a burn building to simulate structural firefighting evolutions, and a grain bin for confined-space rescue. The college also has a radio simulation tower used for tower rescue.

“We’ve had so many cell phone towers and radio towers installed here recently, that’s become a more prevalent type of call for us as rescuers,” said Ian Harrell, director of fire and rescue programs. 

“We also have a lot of water and forest and field area through the woods,” Harrell said. “We do a lot of agricultural rescue scenarios back in that area because we are primarily a rural, agricultural area.”

Firefighters after a fire simulation at Surry Community College. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Continuing a common thread, Harrell echoed the firefighter shortage concerns of Jimmy Hensley at Cleveland Community College almost word for word:

“There has always been a shortage. We’ve never had enough people to do this, and with the changes in society over time, it is actually becoming even more of a shortage. People used to [be able to] leave their jobs, or they used to just work in the areas that they lived in and served in the fire department to protect. Now with today’s society, people have to travel to other places to work, and there’s just a lack of volunteers to come out and help in the fire service.”

Then there are some who find their way to the fire department and never want to leave. John Kuhlman is one of those people.

Kuhlman works full time at the Elkin Fire Department and also part time as a fire rescue instructor at Surry Community College.

“Years and years ago, back in the early ’90s, I was a police officer and got out and raised a family and drove a truck for 20 years, but I always missed the public service,” Kuhlman said. “So when I came off the road and started driving a gasoline tanker, I got into my local volunteer fire department.”

For him, it was also a way to provide a positive environment for his son.

“My son was actually getting into some trouble … and I was trying to find a place for him to be around good role models — positive role models,” Kuhlman said. “Banner Town Fire Department had a junior program, and so ‘Hey, let’s get him in the fire department.’ Well when I got him in there, he couldn’t be in at 14 or 15 years old without Dad being in, so of course I joined and I just fell right back into the public service role … I’ve been in for nine years now.”

The fire side of emergency services became a new calling for Kuhlman.

“I feel like — and this sounds egotistical and I promise it’s not — I feel like I’ve been given a gift that these types of situations don’t bother me,” he said. “I feel like there are only so many of us on this planet that can do this job, and I feel like if I didn’t, I’d be doing a disservice and wasting a talent that I’ve been given.”

Though Kuhlman is 46 years old, he has an eagerness to do this work that never faded.

“I’m passionate about it,” Kuhlman said. “I just want to get in there. I want to drag somebody out of a fire. I want to get in there and do CPR. When the building’s burning, I’m the first one wanting to get through the door.”

As an instructor, he’s also looking for the same desire in his students. 

“When we see we have someone who has the want to and desire sitting in these seats out here, we grab hold of them and we feed them everything we can feed them,” he said. 

“We need that in the fire service. The community needs that out of their fire service,” Kuhlman added. “And so that’s what we’re looking for: the want to and that desire to run into that burning building, to help their neighbor.”

John Kuhlman, fire and rescue instructor at Surry Community College. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Kuhlman shares the same concerns about the firefighter shortage. 

“We’re having trouble in the volunteer setting just keeping enough names on a roster to keep the doors open at the fire department,” he said. “I don’t think the general public knows that.”

“Right now in Surry County, most of your fire departments don’t have any staff in them at all,” Kuhlman explained. “So if a fire broke out in a rural area right now, you’d have to hope during the day time that someone was around in the fire district to go to the fire station, get the firetruck, go to the fire, and hope there’s enough members coming to the fire to put your fire out. There’s no guarantee that those people are there.”

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.