LFD, COMP-NW partnership prepares medical students as volunteer firefighters through award-winning program

By Jennifer Moody
For Lebanon Local
Max Jette of Clackamas worked as an emergency medical technician in the Portland area before moving south in fall 2020 to enroll in medical school.
Jette joined the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest, a branch campus of Western University of Health Sciences. He plans to go into emergency medicine.
A colleague from Lebanon suggested that, as long as Jette was moving to the area, he might consider volunteering for the Lebanon Fire District. When Jette arrived, he learned there was already a partnership in place between the fire district and the medical school and that applications would be opening soon.
“So I waited for the information to come out, and as soon as it did, I applied right away,” said Jette, now in his second year at WesternU and serving as a volunteer firefighter. “I just knew I wanted to volunteer when I moved down and it just happened the perfect opportunity was already in place.”
That opportunity, a partnership known as the Western University Lebanon Fire Emergency Alliance, offers medical students the chance to fulfill their school’s service requirements by becoming volunteer firefighters. The program gives the students real-time medical experience while filling badly-needed volunteer slots at the district.
The creation of WLEA received recognition last month by the Special Districts Association of Oregon. The Lebanon Fire District received the SDAO Outstanding Special District Program Award for 26 or more employees as part of its Feb. 12 annual conference awards ceremony.
The award recognizes special districts for “innovative projects and programs, outstanding safety, public information, public involvement in a district decision-making process, and outstanding achievement,” according to a release from the association. A partner program at the Lebanon district, Fire Corps, which trains volunteers to give emotional and care support during emergency situations, also was named in the award.
The Special Districts Association noted in its award that Lebanon’s program may be the only one of its kind nationwide.
It was an honor to receive, said Mark Fitzwater, the Lebanon Fire District’s division chief of training. “Hopefully, other folks can reach out to their local colleges and see what availability they have, too.”
Whether the fire district or the university was the first to suggest the WLEA partnership isn’t clear, but both agree it started in 2018.
Since then, every year, eight to 10 medical students – known as “Wheelies,” for the pronunciation of the WLEA acronym – are accepted to go through a full 11-week Firefighter I academy. They are trained to use hoses and self-contained breathing apparatus packs, learn search-and-rescue techniques, practice salvage and overhaul, and even do a live burn exercise.
“They come to fires, they ride along on the engines, they ride along on the ambulances,” Fitzwater said. “Then they are released to go and respond as a volunteer firefighter.”
It’s beneficial for the fire district, which relies heavily on volunteers, but also for the students, who get hands-on practice with medical emergencies even before they start their residency training. It also helps build understanding of what a patient might experience with a paramedic before reaching a hospital.
Sometimes emergency medical specialists don’t understand why emergency medical technicians or paramedics do things a certain way or make certain decisions, said Caroline Baber, a third-year WesternU medical student who spent two years as a Wheelie.
“I think having that whole scope of practice is better in the long term,” she said. “It can help streamline patient communication, and patient care and understanding.”
“There’s such an important communication aspect between pre-hospital care and hospital care,” Jette said. “It helps foster a better relationship: Everyone’s working on the same team, and it makes you more aware of that. Both worlds are so different, but you’re treating the same patient at the end of the day.”
WLEA provides far more than the 30 hours of community service that WesternU students are required to perform, and it’s one of the most popular choices, said Jeannie Davis, assistant professor in the WesternU Department of Population Health.
This year, for instance, “We only have 100 students, and a quarter of them wanted to be within the fire department,” she said.
The district always gets plenty of applicants, Fitzwater agreed. “We have to do interviews to limit the amount of students, because it’s a lengthy and involved program.”

MAX JETTE, left, with fellow second-year medical school classmates Robin Faulkner and Khal Halwani during a training with the Lebanon Fire District in December 2020. Photo courtesy of Max Jette

The Lebanon Fire District provides all the necessary equipment, including turnouts, so volunteers can continue to respond to emergency calls after the academy concludes. Most serve for two years, then go on to their residency programs.
The Wheelies also come to drill nights and teach Medical Student Monday classes to other emergency response teams.
Baber, who is currently doing residency work in Corvallis and Portland, led a course during her second year as a Wheelie on hot and cold emergencies: hypothermia, frostbite, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and similar situations.
Working as a wilderness first responder before enrolling at West-ernU, Baber was familiar with situations that involve low-resource management. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians face similar situations, she said: They have some items with them when they get to an emergency, but don’t have access to an entire hospital, so sometimes they have to improvise.
Although Baber and Jette both had previous experience with medical training before becoming Wheelies, they said they found it wasn’t a requirement to join the volunteer program.
“The people who work there (at the fire district) have such a large skill set – not just medical calls, not just fire calls, not just car accidents,” Jette said. “There’s so much to learn. I had just as much of a learning curve as anyone else just starting out as a volunteer.”
Baber was also pleasantly surprised to learn the district truly was open to all volunteers.
“I was actually a little hesitant at first,” she said. “I thought it would be a fun opportunity to blend my love of medicine with being able to get into the community a little bit better, but I have heard a lot of fire departments are like ‘boys clubs,’ and I was not sure how many women were in the department, or how that experience would be as a woman.”
Baber heard about the WLEA partnership first through an email before classes began in 2019, and then again during Welcome Week. She and her roommate both figured they’d check it out, see how they felt and then make a decision later.
That decision was to stay. “Everyone at the Lebanon Fire Department was awesome,” Baber said, noting that a third-year WesternU student, a woman, also helped handle the interviews. “She showed me this really was an inclusive environment, not the classic boys club. They really respect people from different backgrounds here and want diversity in the department.”
Fitzwater, the division chief of training, said the Wheelies must have a fitness assessment and pass an entry level physical fitness test.
The district is always looking for volunteers of all ages for both the partnership program and the Fire Corps support program, he added. Lt. Russell Duerr is the contact.
Jette and Baber both said they highly recommend the WLEA program, both as a training opportunity and a way to get involved with the community.
“Learning all the skills is fantastic, but the people there have made it such a great experience,” Jette said.
Students dealing with heavy loads of classwork sometimes forget the end goal: using that knowledge in the service of others, Baber said.
“Having an outlet to use our clinical knowledge just essentially reminds us, this is what we’re doing this for,” she said. “This is the passion.”