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Lake Tahoe fire academy perseveres through pandemic, holds graduation

Lake Tahoe Basin Fire Academy 2020 Class 14 Graduates: Adam C. Alessi, Melanie O. Andersen, Cody L. Beggs, Andrew V. Contaxis, Rafael A. Cortez, Jason P. Cox, Daniel W. Eckerson, James A. Esparza, Alyssa N. Freels, Emmet B. Freeman, John M. Fullbright, Charles Leo Gebhardt IV, Christopher R. Harland, Kelcey E. Hein, Lucas A. Johnstone, Tristan S. Klasko, Andrew A. Litzinger, Thomas P. McSweeney, Alexis Medina-Guijarro, Logan R. Nicholas, Ar¢yah Z. Nossrat, Karina Nunez, Roberto C. Ortiz, Brandon E. Rylee, Diego A. Velazquez, Christopher W. Welles

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Lake Tahoe Basin Fire Academy held its Class 14 graduation ceremony on one of the training grounds that they’ve been practicing on throughout the year.

The June 29 gathering was small, socially distant and informal compared to previous years that packed the Lake Tahoe Community College auditorium with family and friends along with the traditional ax ceremony.

While many academies throughout the nation were halted due to the pandemic, LTBFA was able to continue with classes held on Canvas and in-person skills training that followed CDC guidelines and safety protocols.

“The Lake Tahoe Basin Fire Academy was able to complete their training under some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable,” said Dean of Workforce Development and Instruction Brad Deeds in an email. “They did everything they needed to do to stay safe, stay healthy, and still finish all of the intensive skills training required to graduate. It was actually our largest graduating class in the last couple of years, which is remarkable.”

Academy was put on hold while everything was sorted, but the classroom portion was made available online using the Canvas program through LTCC. In-person skills training makes up a big portion of the academy’s curriculum and is something that cannot be done online or through a virtual training platform.

Once the academy was allowed to fully resume, cadets and instructors had to maintain strict screening protocols, including no-touch temperature scans that monitored temperatures in and out each class day. If someone had a temperature above 99 degrees, they were not to be permitted to participate that day, and had to fill out extensive pre-screening questionnaires regarding symptoms, exposure, recent travel, etc.

LTCC also made PPE available for both cadets and instructors to use on skills training days.

“Luckily our instructors are all firefighters and paramedics so they are used to using PPE,” said Deeds. “It was very important that even as the college was transitioning to virtual instruction, we were able to resume training for the Fire Academy on June 1 and get all our cadets through the requirements of the academy.”

“COVID put a lot of challenges on everybody, especially the academy,” said Kileigh Labrado, LTBFA coordinator. “Everybody went above and beyond to make it work.”

Labrado said the cadets volunteered to come in an extra day to knock out all the hours they needed for state fire training and to be able to graduate. The instructors also were willing to help out as much as they possibly could to ensure the cadets could graduate. Instructors went through a Canvas training so they could teach cadets using the online platform which is something they have not done before.

“It took a group effort,” she said. “It took the college, state fire training, the instructors and all the cadets willing to get back on the training ground and practice social-distancing to be able to get through the skills portion of the class because without the skills portion, they wouldn’t be able to graduate.”

When the academy resumed, cadets were eager to get back together and complete what they needed to graduate.

“They never gave up no matter what challenge was put in front of them,” Labrado said. “They didn’t stop.”

She also explained that the cadets didn’t let not having a normal graduation ceremony slow them down even when graduation is something that cadets and instructors look forward to. The cadets were appreciative that they were able to graduate even with the current circumstances and even bonded over the whole experience.

“They persevered and got it done without complaining at all,” she said. “They were just thankful that we were here to help them get through it.” She said that there was never one complaint from the cadets.

Class 14 graduate, Kelcey Hein said that LTBFA gave her the certificates and training to pursue her goal of working for Cal Fire. The academy also allowed her to build a network between classmates to lean on for support and camaraderie.

“I can safely say that I left the academy with several close, lifelong friends,” Hein said. “Adapting to COVID was frustrating and challenging but the drive for my classmates and I to achieve those ultimate goals and see eachother be successful drove us to rise up together and get it done.”

Labrado believes that the challenges Class 14 faced prepared them even more for life.

“They realized things don’t always go as planned and they are willing to adapt and overcome whatever challenge is put in front of them.”

The LTBFA was founded in 2006 with a collaborative effort by LTCC, Lake Valley Fire Protection District, South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue, Eastern Alpine County Fire Rescue. Graduates of LTBFA gain the skills to be classified a Firefighter 1 through the California State Fire Marshal’s office and the State Board of Fire Services along with several other certificates.

“It’s such an important program, and our state and local area needs trained first responders more than ever,” Deeds said. “We were tremendously proud of this group. They were amazingly resilient, and they stuck together.”


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