Centralia College East offered its wildland firefighter certification program for the first-time this spring. Adjustments had to be made before its first students could even get started.
With the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Centralia College East was forced to scrap the face-to-face portion in the beginning of the course and move even more content into online modules provided by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
Additionally, course instructor Sami Schinnell said the class size had to be dropped from 24 students to 13 in an effort to minimize the risk during the field day portion.
Centralia College East Program Manager Lynn Schinnell said the modifications weren’t that difficult to make.
“It was fairly easy to adapt this format to the changing restrictions,” Schinnell said. “The instructor shifted some content online, which was more work for her, but the students responded positively.”
She continued by saying the cap on the class size was dropped well before the 13 students had signed up for the class, so no one had to be left out. When the field day portion of the class arrived, the class was split into one seven-person group and a six-person group. Each got their own eight-hour field day.
Sami Schinnell is Lynn’s step-daughter and has amassed 23 years of experience as a wildland firefighter. From her perspective, the need for firefighters who are able to respond to potential hazards during the summer isn’t going to change.
“That’s not going to stop because of COVID-19,” Sami Schinnell said. “So, we thought this was still important to carry forward and if we could do it safely and responsibly, then we could carry on with the class.”
Although Sami said while there’s many different formats in which the class could be presented, Centralia College East went with the online approach to give students flexibility.
According to Centralia College, the online modules, which included 30 hours of instruction through classes such as firefighter training, introduction to fire behavior, human factors in the wildland fire service and introduction to the Incident Command System, opened on March 31 and had to be completed by May 14.
The class was completed over the weekend of May 16.
“We could do a 40-hour class that included all of this in face-to-face time,” Sami Schinnell said. “But the only part that is absolutely required face-to-face is that eight hours of field time. We were planning to do 16 hours just because I think it’s so valuable to have that field time and that face-to-face time.”
However, with the smaller class sizes during the field day, Sami said the dynamic of the sessions became more personal. She felt it was a silver lining of having to limit the groups for the inaugural class.
“We lucked out in that way,” Sami Schinnell said. “It could be a little bit more informal in such a small group. Everybody got a little more hands-on time, it was easy to ask questions and kind of get on tangents if that was appropriate for the group.”
That group, Sami said, featured an array of entry-level firefighters, including some who work as volunteer firefighters and even high school seniors. She called this class the “next logical step” toward pursuing additional opportunities in the field and even weighed the possibility of additional fire-based classes in the future.
“I’ve worked all over the country and I have worked in a lot of different aspects of wildland fire, not just strictly suppression,” Sami Schinnell said. “This class is a start point, regardless of if you go into logistics, aviation, or prevention, there’s all these different routes that you can take. I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to dabble in a lot of those different focus areas.”
Still, according to Sami, the start is the same for everyone.
“Every person who starts in wildland fire takes the same class,” Sami Schinnell said. “Whether it’s the online portion or the in-person, it all has the same curriculum that is approved by NWCG.”
Lynn Schinnell said Centralia College East is looking forward to providing the class for more students moving forward.
“We’re excited to offer the class again in the future,” Lynn Schinnell said. “Wildland firefighting offers students a great summer job, as well as the potential for an exciting career. If anyone missed this opportunity, they should call Centralia College East and get their name on a contact list for the next time it is offered.”