Man on a Mission: Chief Mike Richwine

Article Access Magazine,Summer 2014 Issue
Mike Richwine, California's assistant state fire marshal

With 33 years of fire service leadership under his belt, including 19 years with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Mike Richwine, California’s assistant state fire marshal and the chief of State Fire Training (SFT), knows how to get things done.

But when he envisioned overhauling SFT’s entire curriculum development and certification system, he knew it would take more time and energy and a different skill set than SFT had on hand.

We sat down with Richwine to find out how SFT’s partnership with the Sacramento State College of Continuing Education (CCE) enabled him to streamline his systems, increase capacity and better train the more than 60,000 men and women who serve, safeguard and protect the people and property of California.

Within the Office of the State Fire Marshal, what is the scope of SFT?

Richwine: State Fire Training is the training and education system for the California fire service. We offer a series of cognitive and hands-on (psychomotor) courses, establishing a career path from fire fighter all the way to fire chief. We develop curriculum, adopt textbooks, approve instructors and administer certification requirements and then approve those courses to be delivered through the California Fire Academy System statewide.

How many students does SFT work with each year?

Richwine: Between 40,000 to 45,000 students go through our courses every year. In 2013, we issued 2,500 career and volunteer fire fighter certifications as well as hundreds of certifications for other fire suppression and prevention positions.

What prompted your Mission Alignment plan?

Richwine: We were losing credibility with our customers. State Fire Training is 100% funded by student fees with no state General Fund dollars to support our program. We have never had sufficient staffing for a state of our size and population. We just weren’t able to provide the level of training that we should for the 60,000 plus fire service members that train and work daily in our state. We knew we needed to change or the fire service would find an alternative.

How did this staffing deficit impact State Fire Training?

Richwine: Our Achilles’ heel has always been curriculum development. The frequent complaint that I heard, both as a training specialist and as the division chief, was about our outdated curriculum and standards. Some of the curriculum was 20 years old. We had to keep shelving the course update projects every year just to keep up with the basic fire fighter training that’s critical for the safety of our responders

How long did it take to develop or update your curriculum?

Richwine: Because our processes were so laborious and dependent on a few individuals, it took 18 to 24 months for a single curriculum to hit the streets. By the time the courses were fully vetted and delivered to students, it was time to update them again. With close to 70 different certification tracks and 130 plus courses, we’ve just never been able to keep up.

How did you plan to address the problem?

Richwine: Our options were to solicit more staff, recruit more volunteers to help us or find a way to partner with other educational organizations. But I also knew that we had to change the way we do business. At some point, we had to determine what criteria we would base our decisions on to help focus the level of service we wanted to provide in the future.

Why did you partner with CCE to play a role in helping you achieve that future?

Richwine: When I was first introduced to the idea of working with Sac State, I really didn’t see the connection, but as I learned more about CCE’s services, I realized this might be the vehicle to get us to where we need to go. And because SFT and CCE are sister state agencies, we can operate with an interagency agreement allowing SFT to “turn key” projects much more quickly. This created energy and momentum for SFT and is restoring our credibility when sharing this vision with the fire service.

What skills and services did CCE provide?

Richwine: CCE helped us facilitate a number of focused discussions that shaped what we needed to do for the future of curriculum and standards in the fire service. We identified a number of strategic directives and CCE supported us in each initiative. The Conference and Training Services Unit provided a very talented team of professionals that handled all of the contracting and logistics — processing travel claims and making lodging, transportation and meeting room reservations — that were tying up SFT staff from carrying out their daily responsibilities. To have CCE take on the planning and logistics role was a huge load off my support staff.

How did CCE help you build capacity and streamline curriculum development?

Richwine: We had a lot of institutional knowledge resting in one person and CCE helped us leverage our resources by developing a pool of technical editors that we could pair with subject matter experts to have multiple concurrent curriculum projects. To do that, we needed consistent processes and documents for everyone to use. CCE helped us map the new processes, create document templates and write a detailed curriculum development handbook. This was absolutely key to our success because it’s become our “bible.” Those guidelines will live on and eliminate the key dependency issue because the process can be transferred through training.

Are you happy with your progress to date?

Richwine: I think it’s been a tremendous success. It’s been a significant change for the fire service and we’re still evolving in that process. Not only are we streamlining curriculum, we’re updating our standards and establishing a formal testing process with written exams, critical skills evaluations and competency demonstration through task books. Changing the way we develop curriculum created change to the delivery model and thereby our whole training and education system. In the past 12 months we’ve guided 10 certification tracks with 27 courses through development and approval.

What impact will this have on the fire service?

Richwine: Top-notch training and statewide consistency.  In a mutual aid request, fire fighters can have the assurance that other fire fighters working with them have gone through the same training and testing requirements. But ultimately, we’re talking about fire fighter safety. Lessons learned from fire fighter tragedies become job performance requirements in our curriculum making the training we provide that much more valuable to fire fighter survivability.

Why does that matter to the people of California?

Richwine: Our fire fighters are already the best in the world and we will continue to prepare and support their ability to safely and competently perform during an emergency. Providing them with current, relevant courses based on national standards creates consistency in our training and education system from Siskiyou to San Diego counties. That’s the long way of saying that you’ll have a more advanced, aggressive and highly trained fire fighting force arriving at your house in the event of an emergency.

What has impressed you in your partnership with CCE?

Richwine: If I answer that honestly, then everyone’s going to want in on this and our momentum may slow down! I don’t want others to know about CCE’s “can do” attitude or how very good they are at delivering on our priorities and facilitating our needs, and I certainly don’t want them to know how very successful we are together!

Written by Allison Shaw