A pilot program at St. Petersburg College aims to give new firefighters more intensive training and a leg up in getting their first jobs.
Program participants, in addition to classroom training, will intern with four departments in Pinellas County, enabling them to experience firsthand what life as a firefighter is all about.
"We're always looking at ways to distinguish SPC students from other graduates around the state," said Jim Terry, program director of the college's fire training center.
The program, thought to be the only of its kind in Florida, took about a year to create. The first students have just entered it.
The program also will provide advanced training to graduates of the college's fire center.
To become a certified firefighter in Florida requires 450 hours of classroom and hands-on training, as well as a passing score on a state exam.
Firefighters also must have at least another 40 hours to become certified as a "first responder" — basic first aid training — before being able to work as a firefighter, Terry said.
Competition for jobs is so high that departments essentially won't hire anyone unless they have more medical training and certification as an emergency medical technician or paramedic, he said.
That's why SPC developed the internship program with an eye toward giving their graduates a chance to gain additional certifications, knowledge and experience.
Those who choose to participate in the 200-hour internship program get more in-depth and intensive training in such things as extrications, firefighter safety and survival, and operating emergency vehicles.
They'll spend 40 hours doing ride-alongs with firefighters in St. Petersburg, Largo, Pinellas Park and Palm Harbor and rotate among departments as well as through stations and shifts.
Those departments were chosen because they're spread out across Pinellas and they're busy, giving students a good idea of the realities of the job. Terry said those departments also have chiefs who have supported other initiatives.
The fire departments, he said, might also find some employees among the interns. The fact that they've chosen to go into the program, Terry said, "shows that the students in this program are driven, are excited about this profession."
Palm Harbor fire Chief James Angle said his department has hosted EMT and paramedic interns in the past, so fire interns are just the next step.
"We just saw it as an opportunity to help younger people," Angle said.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.