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'It's All I've Wanted': How an Innovative Bay Area Training Program Is Helping This Fire Victim Become a Firefighter

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A Latino man wearing fire gear and helmet with goggles looks up at a fire instructor while rappelling down a cliff.
Lupe Duran descends over a cliff guided by Field Supervisor Darrell Galli during a FIRE Foundry rope rescue training in Marin on April 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In the fall of 2017, Lupe Duran sat overwhelmed with loss and uncertainty in an empty community college classroom in Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire had just killed 22 people and decimated thousands of homes in the city, including his own.

A stream of questions weighed on the 23-year-old: Could he afford to stay in Santa Rosa and continue school? Whose couch would he sleep on tonight?

As Duran pondered his future, one thing became clear: He didn’t want to feel completely powerless before a fire anymore. A welding student at the time, it occurred to him he should become a firefighter, like the professionals he’d seen save people’s homes.

“It was a feeling of wanting to do more, wanting to actually help and give back to the community,” said Duran, now 28.

This would prove easier said than done. California’s firefighting ranks remain disproportionately white, and male. In recent decades, agencies across the state have started to address common barriers for underrepresented communities, including the time and cost of training to qualify for many full-time job openings.

But for Duran, what got him on his way was a comprehensive workforce development program that seeks to diversify the profession.

The FIRE Foundry, a nonprofit collaboration of the Marin County Fire Department and local organizations and universities, offers free educational services and support aimed at propelling women and people of color into sustainable careers in the fire service.

Participants get a paid job in fire prevention with the county, so they can afford to fully engage in the one-year program, which covers the cost of fire academy prerequisite classes, counseling services, housing at fire stations, hands-on skills training, mentorship and more.

‘They’ll see that it’s like the perfect job’

On a recent morning, Duran and about a dozen other FIRE Foundry recruits participated in a mock rescue training in a forested area near Mount Tamalpais. Wearing firefighting uniforms, the team practiced how to use ropes and carabiners to help pull hikers who fall into ravines back to safety.

Recruits took turns rappelling off a vertical drop about 50 feet high, while connected to a rope system they had set up around a redwood tree. Once at the bottom, they helped a colleague playing the “victim” start the tough climb up the rocky wall, while the rest of the team pulled on the rope from the top.

“I’m hoping that, by showing them all the aspects of what we do in fire service, be it rope rescue or wildland fires, they’ll see that it’s like the perfect job,” said Marin County Fire Captain Rick Wonneberger, one of the instructors supervising the training. “The FIRE Foundry program gives people who may never have considered a career in public safety, who never had a direct in with it, a way to get their feet wet, see if they really like it.”

A Latino trainee smiles as he works the rope controls with a female trainee looking on and smiling in a forest setting.
Lupe Duran holds the rope that connects the rescuer and rescuee to the team pulling them over a small cliff during a FIRE Foundry rope rescue training in Marin on April 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Most of the calls U.S. fire departments get are not about fires, but about medical emergencies. Medical aid comprised more than 70% of those emergency calls in 2021, while actual fires were just 4%, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Today, many job openings in the field are for firefighter paramedics or emergency medical technicians (EMTs). The expense and years it can take to get certified are prohibitive for candidates with lower incomes and less time to spend training and studying, such as caretakers of young children — often women — or those already working full-time in other occupations.

Also, the profession has a strong family tradition — children and other relatives of firefighters apply with a leg up on cultural knowledge, plus valuable information on how to pass tests and requirements, according to experts on diversity in the fire service.

To those on the outside, the process can look intimidating and unfamiliar. This helps explain why a profession that historically has been mostly white and male has largely stayed that way: Nearly all the 307,000 firefighters in the country are men, and about 85% identify as white, according to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The agency does not publish demographic information about the occupation at the state level. While a number of statistics point to a more racially and ethnically diverse firefighting workforce in California, diversity experts said fire departments have more work to do to better reflect the communities they are sworn to serve.

“We’ve made some progress, but we have such a long way to go,” said Reginald Freeman, with the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He added that he became a champion for diversity, inclusion and belonging after experiencing intense mistreatment as an African American while at his first firefighter job in Mississippi.

A white man and a Latino man wearing fire gear and helmets with goggles smile at the camera in the woods with a rope running behind them.
Field Supervisor Darrell Galli and Lupe Duran pose for a portrait during a FIRE Foundry rope rescue training in Marin on April 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Freeman stuck it out. And a challenge throughout his more than 22 years of service, he said, has been the erroneous notion among fire ranks that they must compromise quality in pursuit of candidates from different backgrounds.

“That’s malarkey. You can have a great diverse applicant pool and not ‘lower your standards,’ to join the profession,” said Freeman, the fire chief in Oakland, who is set to retire next month. “What we are trying to do is increase the standard of equity, social justice, and rightful access to these great jobs.”

Increasing diversity in California’s firefighting workforce

In California, where white and Latino workers comprise similar proportions of the labor force at about 40% each, white firefighters continue to be overrepresented while less than a third are Latino, according to U.S. Census estimates.

In 2021, nearly 64% of the state’s firefighters identified as white. Other groups, such as Asians and women, together totaled less than 7% of the firefighting workforce.

Mirroring the state’s population, larger agencies in cities tend to be more diverse, compared to smaller ones located in rural or suburban areas. People of color represent slightly more than half of the firefighting personnel in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Then again, both of those agencies were forced to diversify decades ago under court consent decrees.

In the Marin County Fire Department, which launched the FIRE Foundry program last year, more than 80% of firefighters identify as white.

More departments are now proactively trying to recruit in communities that historically haven’t considered the fire service as an occupation, said Yvonne de la Peña, executive director of the California Firefighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee, which offers financial aid for education and help connecting with jobs at more than 190 agencies.

“I’ve never seen as many fire departments so interested in trying to reach out to a diverse group of candidates,” said de la Peña, who has worked 37 years for the employment training program. “They recognize that diverse individuals really enhance what they do.”

A group of trainees wearing firefighting gear hold a rope as they stand in line behind each other, all but one wearing yellow helmets and goggles, trainees are male and female of different ethnicities.
(From left) Alfredo Campos, Lupe Duran, Rafael Sanchez and FIRE Foundry students train in rope rescue during a class in Marin on April 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Fire Captain Wonneberger, diversifying his department will help better serve people in need, including a growing Latino population in the county, and visitors from around the world who flock to local state parks and recreation areas. For him, diversity means cultural competency as well as language proficiency on his team.

“In my engine currently they are all English speakers. Some of us can speak a little bit of Spanish,” said Wonneberger. “But how much better would it be if I truly was fluent? How much that person would feel truly at ease?”

Program’s future uncertain

Of the 18 recruits who graduated from the FIRE Foundry its first year — most of them women and people of color — some have gone on to accept seasonal positions with Cal Fire, the Marin County Fire Department and agencies outside the state, said Mimi Choudhury, who coordinates the program.

But even with that success and a promising 2023 class, the program’s future is in question without long-term funding to continue its wraparound services and support. The FIRE Foundry is partially funded through a California Volunteers state grant, as well as private donations, said Thomas Azwell, a UC Berkeley professor who co-founded the program.

“Those grants are going to run out. They all have an expiration date,” said Azwell, who guides recruits to test and research fire technology innovations through the university’s Disaster Lab. “I believe that we’ve created an effective model, and if it has the funding that it needs, it could be replicated across the state.”

For now, Lupe Duran worries others won’t get the chance he got when he found the FIRE Foundry by chance, through an advertisement he saw while reading the news, and applied. Getting a paid job in fuel reduction, while he focuses on getting certified as an EMT and taking care of other requirements, has been a game changer for him.

He also values the opportunity to learn directly from professional firefighters, who expose him to the profession’s culture and demystify the process to get into and succeed in the field, Duran said.

A Latino man with a blue tshirt with a FIRE Foundry logo smiles as he looks away from the camera.
Lupe Duran poses for a portrait during a FIRE Foundry rope rescue training in Marin on April 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“The fire captains you meet, the battalion chiefs you meet, you can’t really get that exposure just walking in off the street, unless you know somebody who’s in the fire department, which really makes a difference,” he said.

Duran, the first in his family to attend college, is now set to graduate with an associate degree in fire technology. He recently got a job with the Marin County Fire Department, as a wildfire defensible space inspector. And he believes he is now on a path to achieve his dream of working as a firefighter paramedic.

“It’s very exciting. I mean, it’s all I’ve wanted for the past six years,” said Duran. “It took some time, but it’s paying off now. And the FIRE Foundry helped a lot. It’s a great push forward.”

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