Newswise — For emergency response personnel, the hope is they’ll never need to put their skills to use. But in the case of an emergency, it’s their training that saves lives and heals communities. Across California State University (CSU), programs are in place to prepare both students and working professionals to respond to those crises.

Safety Deep Dive

Since the 1990s, Humboldt County—a region with bodies of water ranging from the ocean and the bay to lakes and rivers—has gone without an official underwater search and rescue team. Until recently, those missions were conducted by volunteer citizen divers at great personal risk.

To ensure the region has its own trained and certified search and rescue dive team, Humboldt State University and Humboldt Bay Fire are working together to launch a new Public Safety Dive Training program.

“There's a need for first responders, whether they're members of fire departments, sheriff's deputies or volunteers working for dive search and recovery teams, to have some sort of formal training in public safety diving so they can do it safely,” says Rich Alvarez, HSU lecturer and diving safety officer. “It's a very technical, very high-risk thing to go out and do. … Knowing a location where people can get the training is going to hopefully be helpful not only to Humboldt County, but surrounding counties and regions with a need to train search and recovery divers.”

The plans for the training program came after volunteer members of what is now the Humboldt Bay Fire Dive Rescue and Recovery Team—including Alvarez, Lecturer and Boating Safety Officer Steve Monk, Lecturer Hanna Johnston and Scuba Instructor Leah Stamper—conducted a search mission following the death of kayaker Nicholas Brunner in 2020. The Brunner family organized a Go Fund Me campaign to establish an official underwater recovery team and created the Nicolas Brunner Memorial Dive Award to help students complete their dive training.

“We were able to recover his body and bring closure to the family,” Alvarez says. “And the family took it upon themselves to fundraise—which has been the big hurdle for creating this training—to pay for the training and to start to get the team off the ground.”

In August 2021, the HSU volunteers, along with two more campus scuba instructors, completed the formal Public Safety Diver certification course, with Alvarez and Monk also earning their instructor rating. With two instructors now able to train others in public safety diving, the campus hopes to begin offering the 50-hour certification course to HSU students, first responders and other members of the public who are affiliated with formal dive recovery teams as early as next summer.

The public safety diving training goes beyond a general scuba diving certification to prepare divers for the heightened risks and challenges associated with underwater recovery missions.

“Having formal training available increases the safety factor for the divers out there,” Alvarez says. “It's usually going to be in water that's contaminated, and there's potential for diving around submerged vehicles or next to docks and piers.”

“The training itself focuses heavily on how to conduct searches: how to be methodical if we're looking for evidence, how to safeguard that evidence and make it usable in court,” he continues. “Then if we're looking for a drowning victim, the training will include how to recover them and … how to do it respectfully.”

Driving the EMT Workforce

If the COVID-19 pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s how integral emergency and medical personnel are amidst a crisis. With an eye toward training local essential workers, the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course at California State University, Dominguez Hills provides the classroom teaching and hands-on learning experiences needed to prepare students to take the EMT certification exam and serve their communities in that capacity.

“Working as an EMT is an option for people who may not have a college degree,” says CSUDH Director of Extension Programs Elisabeth Legge. “Students can take this class and immediately get employment and have so many upward opportunities. … They're able to work in Los Angeles County, and they can also apply to work in other counties in California. Then there are also some options for them to use their license or their certification out of state as well. There are a lot of career opportunities for students going forward from our program.”

The semester-long course, which is approved by Los Angeles County Emergency Management Services, is open to CSUDH students and the public. Students learn to provide patient care and use the emergency equipment while working with the program’s fully supplied ambulance and during a 24- to 36-hour ambulance ride-along.

CSUDH launched the course with the support of local ambulance company MedReach, which was looking to furnish the pipeline of EMTs working in the area. The company donated the ambulance and helped the campus acquire supplies. The first session ran in fall 2019, after which all the students passed their certification exams.

However, the program was put on hold during the pandemic, which allowed the CSUDH team to design a hybrid format with online and in-person components. The program is planned to re-launch in February 2022.

“We think that's going to broaden appeal because the flexibility is so important to so many of our students,” Legge says. “It's also a great opportunity for someone who's working through college because of the flexible schedules working as an EMT provides.”

A Look at Forensics

Since its inception in 1974, the Human Identification Lab (HIL) in California State University, Chico’s Department of Anthropology has served an integral role in cases of missing persons, criminal investigations and mass fatality events. Currently working with 46 counties across California, the lab’s faculty team participates in recovery missions, helps identify recovered human remains and develops search and rescue methodologies. But it is also key to ensuring the state’s current and future professionals are effectively trained in the field.

“Across the country, we have an ever-increasing need for professionals who work in forensic science because of the value it brings to some of the hardest types of investigations,” says Colleen Milligan, Ph.D., HIL co-director and Department of Anthropology chair. “The remains that we have as casework tend to be some of the hardest conditions for getting identified. … So anytime you increase the forensic science workforce and increase the capabilities of the state to understand the advances in technology and methodology, you also reduce the number of unidentified victims, the number of unclaimed victims and the number of crimes that go unsolved and become cold cases.”

As certified instructors for California’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the lab faculty assist in two-week homicide investigation courses across the state, largely for law enforcement and medical legal professionals.

But they also train both undergraduate and graduate students in forensic science. For undergraduates, the Certificate in Forensic Science covers classroom learning in topics like biological sciences and the legal system. Students then get hands-on experience, usually reserved for when they enter the workforce, through a required internship. The program has placed students in the HIL, coroner offices, medical examiners offices, crime labs and law offices. “We craft their curriculum and training based on their interests and future career path goals,” says Ashley Kendell, Ph.D., Certificate in Forensic Science coordinator.

“A lot of times you're introduced to forensic science in a classroom environment, and you may have labs as part of a class, but everything is simulated,” Dr. Milligan adds. “When undergrads go through some of our coursework … we work real case examples into the curriculum, which gives them an idea of what this actually looks like. We use the actual crime scene materials and equipment they would encounter should they be hired for a crime scene position.”

In addition, graduate students in forensics work on live cases in the HIL and deploy with the lab’s recovery teams. “They're stepping into investigations with us, and that is immensely valuable for their professional growth,” Milligan says.

Lastly, the HIL has expanded its role in helping the state respond to mass fatality events like wildfires since it proved an invaluable state resource for victim recovery following the 2018 Camp Fire. Since then, they’ve worked with the California Office of Emergency Services to discern how California can improve its response to future events and began conducting training for coroners and search and rescue groups.

“Butte County’s trust in our advice on how to respond to future fatalities has allowed us to improve collaborative responses,” Dr. Kendell says. “Integrating multiple agencies together improves efficiency, not only of recovery, but of the number of identifications that are made. … The closure we can bring for families and the information we can provide is unique.”

Milligan notes improvement was already seen during the 2020 North Complex Fire, as victims were recovered more quickly and were more likely to be‚Äč identified within 24 hours. “That helps families, that helps the community and that helps resources come in to begin cleanup,” she says.

Focus on the Flames

In the past few years, California has seen some of its largest and most destructive wildfires, burning millions of acres of land. Predictions only expect the wildfire season to get longer and worse. The Bachelor of Science in Wildfire Science and the Urban Interface program at California State University San Marcos is helping communities respond to that problem, especially where fires burn at the intersection of wild land and urban landscapes.

“This represents a massive opportunity for us as a state to be able to provide the tools communities, fire departments and first responders need to address this issue,” says Matt Rahn, Ph.D., program director and research faculty. “It's not going away, and it's only getting worse.”

The flexible, online program is designed as a completion degree for firefighters and first responders who have already gone through the fire academies and trainings to help them understand the challenges this new age of wildfire poses. The goal is to prepare the next generation to not only respond to wildfires, but prevent them.

“It took us 150 years of bad decision-making to get to where we are today in California,” Dr. Rahn says. “It is not going to take five years or one legislative cycle to fix this. It's going to take us 50 or 100 years to fix this. That means we need to dedicate to that workforce that quality of employee and expert to be able to understand and address this and come up with the novel solutions we haven't even thought of yet.”

Course topics include health and safety, fire ecology and community resilience, technology, law and economics, mental and behavioral health, and nutrition and hydration. There is also a mandatory research component that allows students to participate in ongoing fire research at CSUSM or conduct a study that could benefit their own department.

But the program has also drawn professionals who work for cities, utility companies, consulting firms, county planning departments, environmental organizations and other municipalities.

“Whether you're working on evacuation planning or community resilience, or you're working in a planning department on how to design a community that may be in that wild land-urban interface, a lot of the principles we teach in this program apply to that,” Rahn says. “There are a lot of folks coming out of municipalities because they’re recognizing this is now [having] billions of dollars of economic impact annually on our communities just in California alone, and thousands of homes are burning annually in the United States. [They] are now looking at their cities and saying, ‘We need to plan for this.’”

Learn more about how the CSU is studying fire and preparing the next generation of crisis responders.