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Chemeketa’s Fire Suppression Program one of the best in nation

One of the many fire engines used by Chemeketa’s Fire Suppression program.
Photo by Michael Eubanks.

Chemeketa is home to a unique program that separates it from all other community colleges in Oregon. Chemeketa’s Fire Suppression Program, which has taught students firefighting skills for over 50 years, has attracted students from all over the United States.

The unique program give students on-the-job training at the college’s two stations located on the Salem campus and at Chemeketa Brooks. In addition, students serve as backup for various local fire departments and districts.

“In my mind it’s the best program certainly west of the Mississippi and maybe even the whole United States,” said Chief Cliff Munson, who was a professional firefighter for 32 years and began teaching at Chemeketa 10 years ago.

Between Salem and Brooks, the program owns four fire engines that are currently operational. The program also utilizes equipment owned by local departments.

“There’s a Marion County engine and a Salem engine in our fire station up at [Salem] campus, and our guys help staff those and when they respond to calls. Some of our guys are with them,” Munson said.

The program currently has around 40 academy students. However, only about half of the students who enroll in the program complete it.

“You lose a lot at the start of it [the program]. Mostly because you go through your first term and you realize ‘Wow. This is pretty intensive.’ So students either come to the realization that maybe it’s not the right time for this or ‘hey, maybe this job isn’t for me. It’s not what I thought.’ That’s where you see most of it. But, for the most part, students that hang on for the first year generally make it through,” said Cadet Captain Nick Johnson, who is in his second year of the program.

“I think that’s where in the early months of the program people drop. They don’t realize how much it is. When you look at the classes that you sign up for, it says it’s a three credit class, but really, instead of doing four hours a week like a normal college class, you’re there for 24 hours while you’re on shift,” Johnson said.

On every sixth day, students will pull a 24-hour shift at the station on the Salem campus to simulate life as a firefighter.

“For that full 24 hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the next day, you’re at the station with your crew. We do various exercises. We drill together. We come to class together. We’ll eat together, we sleep together. All the stuff to simulate fire station life” Johnson said.

Once students reach their second year, they take part in an internship with a local department and respond to calls with them.

“When I show up to my shift, I don’t go with the Chemeketa students, I go with Salem’s engine 8 crew and respond on calls with them. You’re an asset to the team, but you also in a learning position too. It kinda gives you more hands-on experience, and Marion County does the same thing,” Johnson said.

The hands-on experience that Johnson and other students in the program experience can vary from day to day, so students are expected to be prepared for any situation that may arise.

“This afternoon, Nick might be doing CPR on a person. He might be going in on a shooting or a stabbing, or he might be taking the nozzle through the front door of a house fire,” Munson said.

Community involvement is an important part of the job for firefighters and Muson said that students enrolled in the program are expected to be active members of the community.

“We clean the road up out here [Brooklake Road by Chemeketa Brooks] every six months. We do school tours. We go out and talk to kids. We host the ROTC challenge. They come out here [to Brooks] and use our facility. We provide counters and scorers. We have a football tournament once a year between firefighters and the EMS students and the law enforcement students. This is more than just coming to class, just like how being a firefighter isn’t just showing up to work. We try to indoctrinate them into community involvement and into interaction with each other,” Munson said.

Although the Fire Suppression Program is a long and extensive one, Munson said that it helps students get a foot in the door of an extremely competitive industry.

“I have no doubt he’s going to be a firefighter,” Munson said of Johnson.

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