In a collaboration between UC Berkeley, Marin County and the College of Marin, the FIRE Foundry program was established to increase diversity in fire service through training underrepresented community members in the Bay Area.
The program’s first cohort of 20 recruits began training February following more than six months of planning and recruitment between the collaborating agencies, according to campus doctoral researcher Thomas Azwell. Azwell said the concept of the program was developed in 2021 after meeting with Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber.
“The county is our government partner in providing wrap-around social services for our recruits, and Marin Fire is a potential employer leading the effort to create opportunities for a more diverse applicant pool for recruits coming into the fire service,” Azwell said. “UC Berkeley is the higher education institute that helps to encourage continuing education beyond just the minimum requirement for becoming a firefighter.”
Azwell emphasized the importance of formal education for firefighters as a means to engage with existing emerging technologies in fire service and fire spaces, as well as to develop critical skills. In addition, the program also offers housing support for recruits as a means to serve underrepresented and underserved populations.
According to Azwell, campus resources allow access to research groups that specialize in new technologies. The program’s recruits are able to practice with technologies that aim to help with the increasing threat of wildfires, climate change and other environmental issues.
“We can then bring technology in the early stages of their career as a fire professional so that they can bring these skills to their job,” Azwell said. “It gives them extra qualifications so that it is easier for them to be hired … they stand out, their resumes are expansive beyond basic training.”
Aside from recruits, Azwell said the FIRE Foundry program provides its students and faculty an opportunity to apply their research in the field through training observations showcasing fire behavior outside of laboratories. Live fire events, organized through the program, also allow researchers to test experimental technologies and gather real data.
Azwell said over half of the program’s recruits primarily work in wildfire prevention through vegetation clearance and management in the Conservation Corps.
By supplementing higher education with employment opportunities, Azwell emphasized the program aims to bring more diversity to the fire service and UC Berkeley’s applicant pool.
“Our program focuses on … people of color and women in the fire service, which are the two kinds of underrepresented groups in fire service,” Azwell said. “The goal is to expose them to higher education and qualify them as transfer students.”