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Colorado Mountain College teaches life-saving skills for Vail Valley and central mountain communities


VAIL VALLEY, Colorado — Childhood dreams often focus on becoming a police officer, pilot, professional athlete or firefighter, so Kurt Keiser is not surprised at the number of calls he receives each week from people asking about the fire science program at Colorado Mountain College’s Vail Valley campus.

A Colorado Mountain College fire science student prepares to re-enter the Flashover Simulation Chamber during a recent fire behavior class. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.

A Colorado Mountain College fire science student prepares to re-enter the Flashover Simulation Chamber during a recent fire behavior class. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.

With the recession forcing people to look for job stability, Keiser said he has been receiving more calls than usual at the Edwards community college. He said enrollment in the current Firefighter I class, for example, is double than usual, with 20 students in the class.

“We are seeing a steady increase in fire science class registrations,” said Keiser, assistant professor and fire science program coordinator. “We are seeing more interest in our program, and we expect that to continue because of the economy.”

He outlines other reasons for the interest in the college’s firefighter training program, which also offers classes at the Summit and Timberline campuses and provides courses by request at Colorado Mountain College campuses in Rifle and Aspen.

“This is a really nice place to live, and we completed the fire training tower in Dotsero last fall. Colorado also has no age limit for becoming a firefighter,” said Keiser, who receives calls from people in their 30s and 40s looking to change careers.

Feeding into the success of the fire science program is the fact that the Vail and Eagle River fire departments offer a resident firefighter program. Students who earn one of the competitive slots can live in fire department housing and take classes at Colorado Mountain College, with tuition paid for by the department.

The college’s fire science program has been actively serving students in the Vail Valley since the 1980s. Keiser, a 35-year fire service veteran, was hired as the first full-time coordinator in 2003. The college now educates some 80 to 100 students each semester in classes such as Firefighting Strategy and Tactics, Fire Science Hydraulics, Hazardous Materials Operations, and Fire Codes and Ordinances. Students can earn an associate of applied science degree in fire science technology or complete a certificate of occupational proficiency for fire academy I, fire academy II or company officer.

Colorado Mountain College fire science students are inspected by an instructor before entering the Flashover Simulation Chamber during a recent exercise at the college's training facility near Dotsero. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.

Colorado Mountain College fire science students are inspected by an instructor before entering the Flashover Simulation Chamber during a recent exercise at the college's training facility near Dotsero. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.

Fire science training for the region

Local fire chiefs say the college provides an essential service to the region as the only fire science training program in the Colorado mountains. The program has educated firefighters from every fire department in the college district, Keiser said.

Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller said some 98 percent of his 35 suppression and prevention staff members graduated from or attended classes at Colorado Mountain College. Miller said the program is flexible and convenient, provides good instructors and offers training at affordable rates.

“For this particular area, I think it provides a great opportunity because we are a couple hours from the Front Range (training programs),” Miller said.

Many Colorado Mountain College fire science graduates can be found working at the Eagle River Fire Protection District — one of the largest agencies in the valley, covering 240 square miles of Eagle County.

“The college’s program is a very important service,” said Eagle River Fire Deputy Chief Carol

Colorado Mountain College fire science students prepare to observe fire behavior inside the Flashover Simulation Chamber near Dotsero. The college is seeing increased interest in its fire science program in Edwards. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.

Colorado Mountain College fire science students prepare to observe fire behavior inside the Flashover Simulation Chamber near Dotsero. The college is seeing increased interest in its fire science program in Edwards. Photo by Ed Kosmicki.

Gill-Mulson, who is a Colorado Mountain School graduate and former fire science instructor. “Without it, the county fire service wouldn’t have that well-rounded of a program. Locally, it helps us to be better educated — it helps us attract good people for the (resident) program, and we hire out of that program.”

Edwards resident Gail McFarland, 39, found the fire science classes helpful, along with some other online and out-of-state training, when working her way up in the fire prevention division at the Eagle River Fire Protection District. She started as an administrative assistant, progressed to a permit technician and then landed the current job she says she loves, as a fire inspector.

“It’s really a great opportunity for anyone who wants a fire science degree. I didn’t want to drive down to Denver to have to take a class, especially in winter,” said McFarland, who plans to finish her associate degree at Colorado Mountain College and then try for a bachelor’s degree in fire protection engineering.

For more information on the college’s fire science program, contact Keiser at 970-569-2921.