In case of emergency . . . take this class
A new major in fire and emergency response administration trains students to lead the way – and save lives.
By Dan Vaccaro
When associate professor Brian Bagwell designed the first course for the Fire and Emergency Response Administration Program, he had to assign it a four-digit course number.
He chose 3430.
“Very few people understand the reference,” Bagwell said. “But I chose it in honor of the 343 firefighters who died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11.”
And here’s another little-known fact: Bagwell – coordinator and champion of the FERA Program – should have been in New York that day.
He was living in New Jersey in 2001, working in a psychiatric hospital in New York City after recently completing a doctoral program in clinical psychology. He also served as a volunteer firefighter in Edgewater, New Jersey.
When the planes struck the World Trade Center towers, Bagwell’s department was called in to help cover New York City fire stations, while New York firefighters amassed at Ground Zero.
But Bagwell wasn’t there that day. On Monday night, Sept. 10, he was back in his native Denver to attend the inaugural Broncos football game at what was then Invesco Field.
Bagwell recalls his shock and horror at hearing the news that Tuesday morning. But having served 20 years as a firefighter in Aurora, Colorado, he quickly channeled his emotions into a desire to act.
He drove back to New York that day, and on Friday was sent to Ground Zero to speak with first responders who’d been working with almost no rest for four days. Few if any mental health professionals could get on the scene because they weren’t considered essential emergency personnel.
Not Bagwell. He was a firefighter.
He rode the Staten Island ferry into Manhattan, seeing the smoke still lingering above the famed skyline. He spent an hour walking around the site, speaking with the tireless heroes who scoured the wreckage for survivors. He listened to them and helped them process as best as he could before they jumped back into their work.
“These are the type of people we’re training in the FERA Program,” he said, “the people who don’t run away from crisis; they run toward it. Getting more people trained properly to be leaders in this field is something our society really needs.”
Learning through action
For a nontraditional student like Susan Owens, the FERA program was the only possible fit.
A former paramedic, Owens spent many years in the medical field. Now in her sixties, she wanted to go back to school to get the bachelor’s degree she never had time to earn.
She looked at programs across the state, but couldn’t find anything that really sparked her interest. She was frustrated nearly to the point of giving up. And then she discovered the FERA Program.
“I’m not a typical student,” she said. “I’ve often been mistaken for an instructor on campus, but I’ve been totally accepted in this program. It felt right from the outset, and it’s helped me figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
What Owens wants to be – no, plans to be – is an arson investigator. She said the next phase of her career will be in disaster planning and emergency preparedness, possibly working with an arson detection dog, walking through a burn site to try and discover where and how a fire might have started.
Owens, who also serves as the president of the MSU Denver Fire and Emergency Response Club, graduates in spring of 2017.
“I really appreciate the hands-on learning opportunities in this program,” she said. “In one class we tested smoke alarms to see if they activated during a fire. The alarms were put in a big wooden box, where we could safely create a smoky environment. Afterwards, we took them to the lab to check for soot agglomeration, which can tell us if they activated properly. When you actually do something with you own hands, it’s hard to forget.”
Bagwell also noted that every class requires a service-learning component, which means students get to learn through serving the community as well.
A first in Colorado
Classes in fire and emergency response administration have been available as part of the Individualized Degree Program since 2012. But the standalone FERA major and minor were only approved by MSU Denver’s president, provost and board of trustees this year, and are housed in the Human Services Department.
The program has grown steadily since its inception. The first class had 12 students. Today, some classes attract more than 30. Bagwell attributes this growth to demand in the industry and the distinctive nature of the program.
“There aren’t many degree programs like ours,” he said. “We draw students who are interested in the fire service, law enforcement, homeland security, emergency medical services, and those who want to work in government, nonprofit or health care.
“We also attract people who are already working in those fields who are looking for an opportunity to move up. There is this huge need out there and we’re helping to fill it.”
Another major draw is the program’s Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education and FEMA recognitions, which certify that it meets standards of excellence established by FESHE professional development committees, the National Fire Academy and FEMA. MSU Denver’s program is the only FESHE-recognized bachelor’s program in the state of Colorado.
FERA’s advisory board includes firefighters and chief officers from many of the local metropolitan departments. These experts help shape and refine the curriculum.
Saving lives, changing lives
Robert Shaughnessy didn’t know he wanted to be a firefighter. But he’s always been drawn to helping people, from his days of learning basic first aid as a Boy Scout, to his work as a lifeguard and later as a hospital emergency medical technician.
“I more or less stumbled into the human services office here without a plan,” Shaughnessy said of the day he signed up for the FERA Program. “I’d been looking at programs and trying to figure out what to do next. I met with Brian (Bagwell) and he asked me if I’d ever considered the fire service.
“The next thing I knew he was helping me put a degree plan together, figuring out how I could transfer credits. He’s mentored me every step of the way and that’s made a huge impact on who I’ve become.”
Shaughnessy graduated in May, and he is currently looking for a position at a fire academy while continuing to work as an EMT. He says the program prepared him for what he will face every day in the fire service, but also gave him the skills he’ll need to be a leader in the field.
Bagwell knows what it’s like to feel the call to service and how a degree program can change the course of your life. He was, after all, once a student at MSU Denver himself.
After a decade in the fire service, he decided to go back to school to study human services, and graduated in 1992. He went on to get his master’s and a doctoral degree while continuing to work as a firefighter for 23 years.
“I thought I was coming to take a few classes and it wound up being a springboard to doctoral-level education,” he said. “These days, I feel like my career has come full circle. Instead of continuing to work as a first responder, I’m training the next generation of first responders.”