Minn. academy to recruit diverse responders sees first success

New city firefighter is the first graduate from a partnership program that trains low-income young people to become EMTs

By Andy Rathbun
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — For Dorwen Bishop, the St. Paul EMS Academy proved a life-changer.

Bishop started working as a firefighter Tuesday -- the same day Mayor Chris Coleman's budget address acknowledged him as the first EMS Academy graduate to join the city's fire department.

"Without the academy, I can't say I'd be where I am today," said Bishop, who is 21. "I had no prior experience coming into this, and the knowledge I have now compared to when I began is amazing."

The academy -- a partnership of the city, the St. Paul Fire Department, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey County and Inver Hills Community College -- trains low-income young people to become emergency medical technicians.

Most students are minorities, and "a good portion" of them are women, said Steve Zaccard, St. Paul fire marshal.

"We're especially pleased that now it's come full circle," Zaccard said. "The reason for the EMS Academy was to recruit diverse young people to become St. Paul firefighters, and now the first one has."

Born in the South American country of Guyana, Bishop came to Minnesota when he was 5 years old and was raised in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood.

He graduated from St. Paul Central High School in 2012 and discovered St. Paul EMS Academy on the Internet while attending St. Paul College. Bishop was interested in health care, and the academy, which pays low-income students to attend, seemed too good to be true, he said.

He was accepted into the program and graduated in spring of 2013.

He then began paramedic school and working with the St. Paul Fire Department through its Basic Life Support unit, giving nonemergency transportation and life support to patients traveling to and from the hospital.

That work gave Bishop a taste of firefighter life.

"I talked to guys and began seeing their station life," Bishop said. "Their job was so rewarding, and I asked them, 'What do I have to do to get on?' "

Luckily for Bishop, the fire department held a firefighter recruit academy this year -- its first since 2010.

He graduated paramedic school, took the training to become a firefighter and passed the test.

"My understanding of firefighting was, you put the cool stuff on the hot stuff, but it's a lot more advanced than that," he said.

The firefighter academy is "16 very arduous weeks," Zaccard said. Along with daily physical training, recruits learn special rescue techniques.

"It's very physically and mentally intense," Zaccard said.

Of the 1,198 people who applied for this year's academy, 896 took the written test, and 505 made the firefighter eligibility list, he said.

Bishop said several things drew him to the fire department, one of which was the team dynamic.

"I also like the fact that every day is different -- you can respond to fire calls, to medical emergencies," he said. "There's a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, knowing that we're helping people at their worst moment."

Just before attending the mayor's budget address along with Bishop, Zaccard said he expected more young people to follow in Bishop's footsteps.

"Some of the graduates of the EMS academy have said they want to become St. Paul firefighters. Some of them have said they want to become paramedics, some have even said they want to become doctors," he said. "The EMS academy has given some young people who don't see much of a future, a future."


©2015 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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