Safety First

0515IMG_5303b

Quietly but quickly, Northeast Wisconsin is becoming a national training mecca for law enforcement agencies in particular, and for public safety organizations in general

Story by Rick Berg

When voters approved a $66.5 million referendum for Green Bay-based Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in April, it marked the second time in three years that voters saw the value in expanding the education opportunities available for students in public safety careers.

In 2012, voters approved $66.5 million in capital expenditures for Appleton-based Fox Valley Technical College, including $35 million to build a state-of-the-art public safety training center adjacent to Outagamie County Regional Airport.

The NWTC referendum will provide approximately 400,000 square feet of new and renovated space on its Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay and Marinette campuses for a variety of programs, including a new Emergency Vehicle Operations Control (EVOC) track in Green Bay, as well as a new burn tower for firefighter training. The EVOC course will be designed to train law enforcement officials, firefighters and EMS responders to safely operate their vehicles.

The anticipated demand for public safety education stems in part from the need to fill an estimated 263,000 protective services jobs nationwide by 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even more critical is the need for continuing education for the more than 3 million police officers, firefighters, corrections officers, transportation security screeners, and other protective services practitioners already on the job.

Conflict de-escalation skills

In particular, recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere indicate a high level of need for police officers to obtain advanced training in conflict de-escalation skills, according to Aaron Tomlinson, dean of the public safety division at FVTC, which already has contracts to train officers from more than 1,000 departments across the United States. FVTC is also an official training partner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and works with the Wisconsin Department of Justice on recertification training for law enforcement agencies in the state.

“We obviously focus on the technical side of training – vehicle and weapon and equipment operation and other hard skills where there’s a right and wrong way of doing things,” Tomlinson said. “But what this building allows us to do for the first time is focus more on the soft skills – the ability to effectively communicate, to understand the importance of the physical environment they find themselves in, and to prepare students for verbal conflict resolution and de-escalation strategies.”

The public safety training center site provides more than classroom space. The 80-acre site also includes a simulated village, complete with homes and businesses, as well as a high-speed pursuit track for law enforcement and a six-story burn building for firefighter training. Tomlinson said the facility offers an unparalleled group of components to provide real-life, hands-on training.

“In our training, we talk a lot about mediation and arbitration strategies. How do we tackle a problem and resolve it at the most effective level,” Tomlinson said. “We talk about preclusion – the elimination of every force option before we make a deadly force decision. We talk about the importance of ingraining good decision-making processes, so we can resolve things as peacefully as possible. We do that from day one and we do that not in a static classroom but in an actual environment like one where various scenarios will occur.”

Growing demand for vehicle training

Elizabeth Paape, dean of public safety at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, said the new funding provided by the April referendum could not have come at a more critical time.

“I’ve been here for 24 years and we’ve never had an EVOC track before at the college,” Paape said. “We have been using a track at the airport (Austin Straubel International), but that area is earmarked for another hangar. So we were one hangar away from being booted off that track.”

Funds authorized in the referendum will be used to develop an EVOC track on a site in the Village of Howard.

Ed Jahnke, public safety director and fire chief for the Village of Howard, said the availability of an EVOC track in the Green Bay area will allow fire and law enforcement agencies to more readily provide emergency response training for new recruits, as well as for existing personnel.

“It’s important for employment training,” Jahnke said, “but it’s also important for the safety of our communities to have well-trained, skilled public safety personnel.”

“We use the EVOC track for our associate degree program, because it’s a state Department of Justice requirement for recruits, and there’s also a requirement for law enforcement officers to get updated training on driving skills,” Paape said.

The new EVOC track will not only replace the current track at Austin Straubel, but will also fill an expanding need, Paape said.

“We’re going to be hitting markets we haven’t previously touched,” Paape said. “For example, there are a lot of departments in our district that currently use Fox Valley Tech’s track, because ours has been so limited. With this, we’ll have a better track with more capabilities.”

Growth in Homeland Security

Marian University’s Homeland Security program, housed in the School of Business and Public Safety, was born out of the increased focus on anti-terrorism and natural disaster preparedness that emerged in the past decade and a half. Headed by Paul France, a regional director with the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management, Marian’s program is designed to prepare students for careers focused on emergency planning and response.

“We’re responding to an identified need to do a better job of planning for disaster response, including terrorism and natural disasters,” said Jeffrey Reed, dean of the School of Business and Public Safety at Marian, based in Fond du Lac. “Paul France has worked in public safety and homeland security for 20-plus years, so he brings his experience to the classroom having worked in the field.”

In addition to traditional classroom work, the program focuses heavily on hands-on experience through a broad internship program with the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Wisconsin State Patrol, as well as police and sheriff departments and district attorney offices.

The public safety school at Marian also includes a criminal justice program that includes students new to the field, as well as existing criminal justice practitioners.

“It’s a little bit of both,” Reed said. “We have strong growth here on campus in students who are interested in a career in the social justice component, such as corrections, probation-parole or drug and alcohol counseling. Then we also get a lot of people already in the criminal justice system seeking specialty skills, such as forensics or community relations. There’s some refocusing going on in those areas.”

Marian is also refreshing its articulation agreements with technical colleges to make it easier for associate degree students to transfer and pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Putting the ‘safety’ into public safety

If recent years have taught us anything, it’s that the proper training of public safety personnel is critical in reducing the risk of conflict.

“One of the biggest skills gaps we hear about from our law enforcement clients is good communication skills,” Tomlinson said. One can’t be an effective police officer without strong communication skills, and that’s not just about talking to people, it’s about listening and understanding.

“We also know that technology changes make police officers’ jobs more demanding. We challenge them with the technology we put in front of them,” Tomlinson added. “We train on body cameras, on the use of computer technology in vehicles, on video surveillance, as well as the use of the Tasers and other less lethal munitions. All these require a more advanced skill set.”

Those demands are coming from the field, Tomlinson said.

“Beginning in January 2016, our law enforcement academy will move from 530 hours to a 700-hour academy in Wisconsin. That is to meet a lot of these increasing demands for advanced technology skills but also the crisis component,” he added. “The curriculum includes dealing with people in crisis and conflict, infusing ethical decision-making skills. That’s the fundamentals of what we do every day. Whether it’s a traffic contact or a call for general assistance, departments have weighed in and said we have to do a better job of training our students. That’s global.”

Rick Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in Green Bay.