The chief of the Tyler Fire Department didn’t plan to be a firefighter until he sat for a civil service exam in Fort Worth on a suggestion from a friend.

David Coble had been studying to be an engineer at the time. After passing the civil service test, he entered the Fort Worth Fire Department’s training academy. The rest is history.

Now, Coble is planning to create a new fire academy within the Tyler Fire Department to train new firefighters in the same way he was trained. He hopes it will diversify the department in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.

The new academy would be a change from practices over the past two decades, during which the Tyler Fire Department has required incoming firefighters to have already completed their training at other institutions, such as community colleges.

In Tyler, the longtime program teaching the ground-up course for firefighting skills and hazardous materials training course right now has been Tyler Junior College. Other programs in the region include Kilgore College.

Historically, the city of Tyler did teach the basic fire suppression course. It’s not clear when that ended, but a 1998 article from the Tyler Morning Telegraph says that the city sent 14 new firefighters to fire academy that year.

“Normally in the large cities, they have their own academies,” Coble said. “Tyler is considered a midsize city, so we’re on the cusp of needing our own academy anyway. This will give us better control.”

“And again it gives us that opportunity for a diverse group of people,” he said. “Diversity is something that we’ve been lacking. I would like to see that the Tyler Fire Department reflects the community that we serve.”

When he was hired in 2016, Coble was Tyler’s first African American fire chief. He said the 163 members now include two African Americans and three Hispanic firefighters. There are no women.

In February, the Tyler City Council approved an ordinance change to compensate bilingual firefighters who speak Spanish at the scene of fires. Coble said at the time that the pay could help bring in Hispanic firefighters who speak Spanish.

The fire academy is Coble’s largest diversity effort so far, but it won’t come overnight. Existing firefighters who train others will need to get additional certifications. That money, about $21,000, is in the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget that the City Council is scheduled to vote on at the end of the month.

Construction also needs to finish on Fire Station No. 4 on Cherryhill Drive, near Jack Elementary School. Ground was first broken in November. The station is being built with a classroom to host the fire academy from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Coble said he expects to offer the first civil service exam a year from now, in the fall of 2020. The first class of the new fire academy would start sometime in 2021. The full fire academy course would take six to seven months, he said.

People coming into the department who already were certified through another program would be offered an abbreviated academy for six weeks. In both cases, firefighters would be paid a salary while they are in training.

Any increase in diversity would come at the rate of natural turnover. Coble said about five to seven firefighters leave the department each year, so each year’s fire academy class would need to have approximately that many members.

They would be chosen from a list of test scores, from highest to lowest, with five points added to the scores of veterans. Members would not be chosen based on race, ethnicity or gender, but the wider availability of the exam could prompt nontraditional candidates to take it.

Coble said the department plans to hold fitness boot camps next summer to help prepare applicants for the physical requirements of the job. He said the classes would be geared toward women but open to anyone.

“(The) fire department traditionally is a family-type job where people have an uncle or are third-, fourth-generation in the fire service,” Coble said. “That’s never going to go away. That is just a great tradition to have.

“But then there’s those of us who influxed in who didn’t have a relative already on the job who learned about it through recruitment or somewhere and decided to become a firefighter and end up being a very good firefighter,” he said.

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield

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