Nicolet College’s unique firefighter training partnership changes lives, opens doors for graduates
Everyone makes his or her own path in life.
Jelani Bunn and Melvin Casiano are no different.
Both young men and their 14 classmates decided the path they were on wasn’t working. To build a brighter future for themselves, they elected to enroll at the Blackwell Job Corps Center in eastern Forest County.
Recently, all 16 graduated from a firefighter training program offered through a partnership – the first of its kind in the nation - between the U.S. Forest Service, Blackwell and Nicolet College in Rhinelander.
“Everyone felt a real sense of accomplishment and pride the day we finished,” said Bunn. “It was very challenging physically, of course, but mentally was the greatest challenge. It taught us that when you see someone struggling, you have to be there for them, give them someone to lean on. You also know that they will be there for you. When that happens, the team will always pull through.”
Each of the graduates completed the 96-hour structural firefighting program at Nicolet, learning a wide variety of skills to battle a fire and stay safe in the process.
The program included classroom instruction, which covered firefighting theory, along with plenty of hands-on training, said Jason Goeldner, associate dean of Public Safety at Nicolet.
“It’s a demanding program, no question about it,” Goeldner said. “But then that’s what firefighting is. It’s hard work attacking a structure fire and you have to know what you are doing. There are times when lives are on the line, and now these young men have the skills to provide aid in a time of great need. We’re proud of each and every one of them.”
Hands-on instruction included proper use of personal protective gear, safe and effective use of ladders in a variety of rescue and firefighting situations, executing search and rescue patterns, hazardous materials operations, and how to attack a live fire in an enclosed space.
“It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this type of training,” said cadet Melvin Casiano. “I had my doubts when we first started, but I can’t tell you how good it feels to do something you never thought you could do. The instructors were great, really molding us into a team. Teamwork has to be the number one thing when fighting a live fire.”
With their official Firefighter 1 training, each graduate is now qualified for paid on-call positions with local volunteer fire departments, said Lee Jensen, U.S. Forest Service assistant fire management officer for the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am and how inspiring it is to see these students work so hard and stick with it and make it to graduation,” said Jensen, who worked daily with the students and was instrumental in creating the partnership with Nicolet.
“The students have come a long way from their past before Blackwell and they have no plans on going back to the environment where they came from. All of them have great plans for the future.”
All 16 firefighters are seeking positions with volunteer fire departments across Wisconsin and in Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois, he added.
Melvin Casiano readily stated that he came from a “rough” background. “This is a great opportunity for me to make life better,” he explained. “I can’t fix the past but now I know I can fix the future.”
Jensen said he’s excited to continue the program with Nicolet and potentially expand instruction in the future.
“This is the first time in the country that a partnership like this has been created,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of interest nationally with what we have established here at Blackwell with Nicolet. People are looking at it and it’s very possible that the model for the program will be used in other parts of the country.”
Graduate Jelani Bunn said the experience changed him.
“I’m so grateful that I came here,” he said with a big smile. “We learned so much more than just firefighting. We learned how to help others. I look forward to helping anyone in the community at anytime with the skills I’ve learned. I feel like this program really opened up a lot of doors for me.”