They’re the unsung heroes, the ones who risk their lives every day – often to save someone else. Driven by an inner call and fueled by adrenaline, firefighters help out in the darkest moments – simply because they can.

“Some people call us crazy,” said Tim Zehnder, director of fire science at Mid-Plains Community College. “Maybe we are. You have to be a special kind of person to see that a house is on fire and think, ‘I’m going to grab some stuff and run in there’.”

He can’t imagine life any other way.

“I eat, breathe and sleep fire science – sometimes to a fault,” said Zehnder. “I grew up watching my dad run out the door to fight fires, and I never wanted to do anything else. Helping people is just the right thing to do. Being able to take someone’s worst day and make it a little bit better is pretty rewarding.”

That being said, Zehnder is also the first to admit that the profession isn’t as fun and glamorous as it often seems on TV.

He prepares his students for firefighting in the real world.

Students in the Fire Science Technology program at MPCC take time out of training for a photo. Pictured back row, left to right are: Alex Farnsworth, of Venango; Coy Aerni, of Madrid; Connor Lepper, of McCook; Kaleb Wonderly, of Benkelman and Dustin Payton, of McCook. Pictured front row, left to right are: J.J. Hilliker, of Gordon; Hope Boggs, of Hershey; Angelica Diones, of North Platte and Ethan Osne, of Valentine.

MPCC’s Fire Science Technology program is a two-year course. Through it, students learn everything from the basics of firefighting to apparatus operation, fire investigation, prevention, safety, survival and even some administrative skills.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, however, is the interpersonal relationships that stem from the small class sizes.

“This program has a real homey atmosphere to it,” said Zehnder. “I think that’s important because it allows the instructors to get to know each student. If a student is struggling with something, we can see it and help out. Having that bond with the students also makes them feel like they can come talk to us and ask for help on their own if they need to.”

Students benefit in terms of networking as well.

“All of the Fire Science Technology instructors have great working relationships with the McCook and North Platte fire departments,” said Zehnder. “We also travel to national conferences to build connections and get the most up-to-date information for our students. We’ll put them in touch with anyone we can to help them find that job after graduation.”

Although most have hopes of landing a full-time position within a big city fire department, Zehnder has trained students for other careers.

Student C.J. Neumann, of Plattsmouth, instructor Mike Schoenemann and student Duell Puttergill, of Tryon, prepare for confined space rescue training. The training is part of MPCC’s Fire Science Technology program.

“Many go into the wildland side of the business and fight forest fires,” said Zehnder. “Others become investigators for insurance companies, go into emergency management or simply help out at their local volunteer fire department.”

Regardless of where they end up, the students all have similar qualities.

“They’re caring, determined and not scared of hard work,” said Zehnder. “They’re the kind of people who would drop everything and walk across the street to help someone who fell off the curb. That makes them perfect for this profession.”

Firefighter stats according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

2015 Median Pay:
$46,870 per year/
$22.53 per hour

Number of jobs in 2014: 327,300

Job Outlook for 2014-2024:
5% (As fast as average)

Employment Change for
2014-2024: 17,400


890 jobs in 2014.
940 expected by 2024. 
30 openings per year in the state on average.