By Carl Smith
Future firefighters have a new, cutting-edge environment in which to hone their skills and receive real-world training and experience at Rankin County School District (RCSD).
In 2021, Richland High School opened a shared, multi-disciplinary facility housing the state’s first-of-its-kind high school Fire Academy. The Academy Building hosts a 3,200-square foot space — also known as the Bay — mimicking the traditional layout, setup and inventory of a fire station, from lockers for classroom equipment to a large bay door. The entire project represents a $615,000 investment by RCSD and was funded by a 2017 bond issuance.
“Having this facility is a tremendous asset for our students. They’re gaining firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a firefighter at the high school level. When they graduate, they’ll be prepared to go to the Mississippi State Fire Academy (MSFA). They’ll have an advantage over their peers because they already have the skills they need to be successful. They’ll also be prepared for other first responder jobs, too, because the class teaches many transferable skills,” said Dr. Cassondra Vanderford, who leads RCSD’s career and technical education programs. “The City of Richland is a great partner with our school, and that partnership is tremendous for our students.”
The Bay can currently support 41 students, and Capt. Micah Sanford, a 17-year veteran of the Richland Fire Department (RFD) who teaches the class, said he hopes to procure a firetruck simulator — the frame of a firetruck that will sit in the facility for hands-on student practice — in the future. Additionally, the RHS Fire Academy features three 40-foot shipping containers — also known as CONEX boxes — in which students practice search and rescue operations in blackout conditions Sanford said “gets them as close to the MSFA experience as possible.”
“We’re using them to simulate structures and scenarios they might face as firefighters,” he said, noting the combined square footage of the CONEX boxes are comparable to an average, single-family detached home. “Can they work with real fire? No. We can, however, take them to live-fire exercises conducted by professionals. We’re looking to get a digital fire system, though, that will have simulated smoke and fire. It produces visuals that look exactly like a real structure fire.”
RCSD’s fire science program started in 2016 as an after-school program and moved into the RHS Career Discovery classroom the following year. RFD looked to hire program completers as a way to create a pipeline of somewhat-experienced workers, Sanford said, for the about-30-person department.
“The principal at the time thought this would be a good program to have inside the classroom. The class was successful, but we realized we needed our own classroom if we wanted to do things the right way,” he said. “The bond issue came along, and there was talk of adding onto our school. That’s when our opportunity came.”
Since the program’s launch, RFD hired one student, Sanford said, and a few others now work for other area fire departments. Because the class teaches transferable emergency skills, other students found employment opportunities in other first responder-related professions: a completer was scheduled to enroll in the state’s police academy last fall, and another became a full-time emergency medical technician (EMT).
“Not everyone can be a firefighter, and not everyone can be an EMT. As a teacher, you learn personalities and traits, and then you encourage students to follow their interests,” he said. “Each year, we have one or two students who decide to go into the fire service or into the emergency medical service. We’ve had a few join the military, too, and they said they did so because we convinced them they’d be good at it. We always tell them: ‘Go do it.’”
Pablo Vaca, an RHS junior in his second year of the fire science program, said his general interest in emergency services led him to sign up for the class. He said he hopes to gain a knowledge base for entry into the career field.
“It will be nice being one step ahead of the game when it comes to getting a position in the field,” said Vaca, who would be the first in his family to become a firefighter if he chooses to join the profession. “My favorite part (of class) is being around (firetrucks). We’ve been able to actually learn how to pump the trucks as if we are at a fire scene.
“I’ve also enjoyed spending time working with the ladder truck,” he added. “Up 110 feet in the air is quite a view.”
Connections is the magazine for K-12 career and technical education (CTE) in Mississippi. The biannual publication features students, educators, schools and organizations from approximately 50 career pathways across 16 career clusters. This Mississippi Department of Education publication is produced by the Research and Curriculum Unit at Mississippi State University. Issues are disseminated in print and electronic forms in May and December each year. To be added to mailing list, please send your email address to firstname.lastname@example.org.