Presented by UAF

Paul Miranda was heading into his senior year of high school when, on a whim one day, he walked over to his neighborhood fire station in midtown Anchorage to see what he could learn about firefighting.

That chance visit led him to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College Fire Science Program where, a year later, he was a full-time college student and a full-time firefighter responding to real calls for help.

Fire Science Academy students train at a live fire simulation at the Fire Training Center in Fairbanks.

It might sound unusual, but Miranda’s story is far from unique. He is one of the hundreds of UAF students who have prepared for a career in the fire service by serving in Fairbanks’ University Fire Department.

A career pipeline

The University of Alaska system is the state’s largest provider of workforce training, and that doesn’t just mean baccalaureate degrees. UAF’s Community and Technical College offers programs that prepare Alaskans for careers in critical, in-demand jobs and industries like health care, aviation, engineering and emergency response. The university works with local employers to connect CTC students with employment opportunities once they’ve completed their studies.

Students in two CTC programs don’t have to wait for graduation to get hands-on experience. UAF’s Fire Science Program and Paramedic Academy attract students from around the nation, and alumni have joined the ranks of fire departments all over Alaska and beyond, from New York City’s FDNY to the Antarctic Fire Department. A large part of the draw is UAF’s own University Fire Department, which might be the only one of its kind in the U.S., or even the world.

Unlike many other universities that have their own fire departments largely staffed by career firefighters, UFD has 11 professional staff in leadership roles. All other firefighters are required to be full-time UAF students. Students who serve in the UFD get hands-on training as they respond to real structure fires and medical emergencies.

“The program at UAF is really unique nationwide,” said Anchorage Fire Department Assistant Chief Alex Boyd, a UFD alumnus. “There’s no place else in the country that I’m aware of where the firefighters really are true students and the only staff are sort of the supervisors. It’s such a unique opportunity for young aspiring firefighters.”

UFD doesn’t just protect the campus. In the late 1970s, the university contracted with the Fairbanks North Star Borough to begin providing coverage for the surrounding community as well, a service area of 22 square miles that’s home to about 20,000 residents. Fire science and paramedicine students who don’t work for the UFD have opportunities to earn scholarships by serving with the local volunteer fire departments that are critical to smaller communities just outside Fairbanks.

“The student firefighters take on an enormous amount of responsibility that they might not be exposed to in other places,” said UFD Fire Chief Douglas Schrage. “They drive the engines and the trucks as soon as they’re sufficiently experienced. Our firefighters walk out of here after four years often with a paramedic license, a college degree and four years of firefighting experience.”

The evolving field of fire and rescue

Traditionally a blue-collar job, behind the scenes, firefighting is an increasingly technical field.

“It’s not just spraying water on a fire,” said John George, who earned his bachelor’s degree in education as well as an associate degree in fire science while serving on UFD and today heads UAF’s Fire Science Program. “You have to be a professional. There’s a lot to the job.”

Science and technology play an increasingly significant role in firefighting, as new advances and new knowledge change the way fire dynamics, water and ventilation are understood and addressed. Firefighters have better protective equipment, better breathing apparatus and tools that help them see through smoke. They can go farther into a fire, and that means they have to be more deliberate and strategic in order to get out safely. Contemporary building materials tend to include plastics, resins and chemicals that make them burn hotter, faster and more unpredictably than older buildings.

“Firefighting is becoming more dangerous,” George said. “A modern firefighter is one that has to be a critically thinking firefighter, who is constantly analyzing the environment that they’re responding to.”

Along with those critical thinking abilities, he added, the fire service requires strong math and communication skills calculating medicine dosages and water volumes, writing reports that will be added to insurance and medical records. That means the combination of classroom study and on-the-job experience is incredibly valuable, he added.

Fire Science Program Coordinator John George instructs student Fabienne Munoz of Anaheim, California, in fire extinguisher usage during the 2016 Summer Fire Academy at the University Fire Department’s station on University Avenue.

“We basically take the first 10 years of someone’s normal fire service career, and we cram it into one year,” George said. “It’s an accelerated learning environment that just really puts you on top. We’ve kind of honed how to take someone from zero to hero in a really brief, two- to four-year period of time.”

Pursuing paramedicine

They’re called “fire departments,” but in reality, most of the calls to which city fire crews respond don’t involve a single flame. In Anchorage, for example, more than 78 percent of calls are medical in nature, according to Boyd, who oversees AFD’s training programs. Firefighters are generally required to be certified emergency medical technicians, but many UAF students choose to go further into their medical training by enrolling in the Paramedic Academy.

Alaska’s Mobile Intensive Care Paramedic designation is a professional license issued through the state medical board, just like a doctor. To earn his MICP license, Boyd went through 2,500 hours of training, followed by 1,500 hours of clinical and ride time. It’s roughly the same commitment as becoming a registered nurse, he said, except that it’s focused on an even more specialized slice of lifesaving skills.

“It’s a very, very narrow window of medicine as a whole, but you have to know it so well,” Boyd said. “I would much rather have a paramedic treat me in the moment of cardiac arrest than an ICU. They know that process even better than many physicians.”

Paramedics have a highly developed understanding of human physiology and how the body responds to trauma and they have to be able to apply that complex medical knowledge in a dynamic environment, such as on the scene of an accident or fire.

“Death is a process,” Boyd said. “You can interrupt that process at any point as long as you understand it. That’s what a paramedic does.”

Alaska paramedics are trained at a uniquely high level, according to George, because emergency medical response in Alaska can be very different than in other states. They need to be able to work independently without having to consult a doctor before administering certain treatments.

“Even in my service area, there are places where the radios don’t work,” George said. “Modern-day paramedics in Alaska can do a lot of the things that can be done in an emergency room.”

Opportunities for paramedic training used to be fairly limited in Alaska, and many of the state’s first generations of medics had to leave the state to get their education. Today, there are three paramedic programs in the University of Alaska system, and at UAF, there’s also the opportunity to pair the classroom work with hands-on experience through UFD.

George still remembers the first time he saved a life. He was halfway through his degree program at UAF and was serving as a lead medic on the UFD ambulance when they responded to a head-on collision and found a passenger unconscious. He started two large-bore IVs and they rushed her to the hospital, where they bypassed the emergency department and brought her straight into the operating room. The surgeon came out later and told George: “I just want you to know, you saved her life. Three more minutes and she’d be dead.” The patient had suffered a broken neck, a lacerated liver and a ruptured spleen but she was going to recover.

“It’s pretty amazing,” George said. “We want to help people in their time of need. To have someone tell you that you literally saved someone’s life is incredible.”

A demanding schedule, a competitive edge

Fire and rescue is a 24/7 business, and UFD student firefighters are no exception. It’s a year-round job with no long breaks for summer or the holidays.

“Come May when classes are over, we don’t turn 9-1-1 off until September,” George said.

Incoming freshmen start their training days after graduating from high school and dive straight into fire station life. It’s a full immersion into the culture of the fire service, and a college experience that looks very different from most people’s. Like many UFD personnel, Miranda balanced a full courseload with working up to 56 hours per week in 24-hour shifts a fairly standard schedule for emergency responders. When he was on duty, he went to class in uniform, carrying a pager, and his professors knew that if the pager went off, he would have to dart out to hop on the fire engine that would pick him up en route to the incident.

UAF CTC paramedicine students practice a patient handoff with UAA nursing students in a joint training exercise April 17, 2018, at the Fairbanks campus.

“It definitely had a lot of challenges, but I think it kind of forced me to learn how to be responsible and manage my time appropriately,” Miranda said.

Miranda earned his associate degrees in fire science and paramedicine and a Bachelor of Emergency Management degree. When it came time to apply for his dream job at AFD, he knew he would need whatever advantage he could get.

“It’s definitely a very competitive hiring process, specifically in Anchorage,” Miranda said. When he joined the department in 2011, he was part of a larger-than-usual class of 32 new hires selected from a pool of more than 500 applicants.

There are dozens of UFD alumni currently employed by AFD, and dozens more among the department’s retirees. Boyd said it’s rare to see a new hire academy that doesn’t include some UAF alumni. UAF student firefighters have lived the lifestyle of a first responder and are prepared for the challenges that come with it long shifts, high-pressure situations, middle-of-the-night calls -- but they bring more than just valuable experience, he added. AFD’s hiring process emphasizes values like constant improvement, growth and development.

“Those are core values within the University Fire Department,” Boyd said. “Those core values tend to align very, very well with our hiring process. We know what it means when we get a letter of recommendation from Chief Schrage.”

Schrage, himself a UFD alumnus, spent 26 years in AFD, rising through the ranks to become second-in-command before returning to Fairbanks. The field has become far more competitive than it was when he joined AFD in the 1980s, Schrage said. For students who hope to become career firefighters, experience in the UFD and a degree in fire science can provide a significant advantage as they compete for jobs in municipal fire departments.

“That’s how the vocation is evolving,” Schrage said. “The fire department is one of the few vocations that somebody with no formal education beyond a high school diploma can walk onto a full-time career job and make pretty good blue collar money without any formal training in advance. As a result of that, it’s become much more competitive. While most fire departments don’t require a college education, the college education is what makes people more competitive. Those are the people that are rising to the top of the hiring lists.”

As more aspiring first responders have opted to pursue bachelor’s degrees, UAF’s programs have evolved accordingly. Now 48 of the 60 credits required for an associate degree in fire science can be applied directly toward a Bachelor of Security and Emergency Management degree, which offers concentrations in fire administration, emergency management, and emergency medical and public health management.

It’s a challenging experience to be sure, Schrage and George both acknowledged, but the rewards are worth it.

“If they make it past the first year, better than 90 percent will get the career of their choice and a college degree,” Schrage said.

The challenge of the job, and the resulting close relationships with coworkers, are part of what makes it all worthwhile, said Miranda, now an engineer working at Anchorage’s Station 14 and president of the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association.

“I really like that it’s not a job where you show up to work and you know what’s going to happen that day and it’s always the same,” Miranda said. “It’s always something different every day.”

What’s more, he added, now he can be the same kind of firefighter that he looked up to as that neighborhood kid in Anchorage.

“I’m getting to serve the community that I grew up in,” Miranda said. “That’s something that’s really cool.”

Photo Credit: UAF photos by JR Ancheta

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is a Land, Sea, and Space Grant university and an international center for research, education, and the arts, emphasizing the circumpolar North and its diverse peoples. The Community and Technical College offers more than 40 certificate, degree and occupational endorsements to help prepare Alaskans for success in the workforce. Learn more at UAF.edu.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.