Golden Valley firefighter named Outstanding Faculty Member at Hennepin Tech
A firefighting recruitment letter 22 years ago was the accelerant for Bernie Vrona’s future career in higher education.
Hennepin Technical College recently selected the Golden Valley resident as one of its two Outstanding Faculty for 2013 (academic year 2012-2013). Vrona has taught with the school’s fire program for the past six years and is on the national board of directors for the International Fire Science Accreditation Congress.
He’s spent his time in the hot seat.
Vrona began volunteering with the Golden Valley Fire Department in 1991. The former nonprofit executive “had time on my hands” and when he received the annual letter from the city seeking volunteer fire fighting help, he responded.
“I wanted to do something for the community while keeping myself in shape and challenge myself to do something out of the ordinary,” he said. “My first call was a false alarm, which was a bit of a letdown, but it allowed me to get used to what would be many false alarm calls in the next 20 years. I expected it to provide an opportunity to test myself and provide a service to the community. It did all of that and much more.”
Earlier in his life, as an executive with a nonprofit agency in New Orleans, Vrona had served as an adjunct professor at the Tulane Graduate School of Social Work and an adjunct at the University of New Orleans. Later, when he came to Minnesota, he worked as an adjunct at Anoka Technical College teaching fire science supervisory management classes.
He also taught weekly training sessions for area fire departments. When Anoka Technical College closed its fire program, Vrona sold his business and went to teach full-time at Hennepin Tech.
In doing so, Vrona’s academic life began to closely mirror his volunteer life. The college uses four pumper trucks with pumping capacity of more than 1,200 gallons of water per minute. It also features a 100-foot tower ladder, a 70-foot high training tower, two car fire props, one propane live fire simulator, two Class A live fire simulators, one structural collapse simulator and numerous ventilation and fire simulators.
While fire hasn’t changed much since the first flint-on-flint encounter, the ways to fight fire have changed.
“Buildings have changed in terms of their construction,” Vrona said. “It’s made our jobs more difficult. There is more plastic in the buildings, which burns hotter and faster. We have learned to read fire differently than we did 20 years ago. Not as many firefighters took the fire science degree 20 years ago as do today. The degree is becoming more and more required than it was in the past [for anyone who wants] to be a leader in the field.”
Mark Kuhnly, Golden Valley’s chief of fire and inspections, said Vrona brings a lot of knowledge to the department.
“I think as a whole he can bring the department changes in the way the fire service operates, and new techniques in fire fighting, search and rescue,” he said. “We as a department always feel we’re lucky with the tenure this department has. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to retain firefighters (like Vrona) for 20 years to serve the community.”
The Golden Valley Fire Department has 50 paid-on call firefighters. Ten of them, Vrona and Kuhnly included, have served for more than 20 years.
Lisa Larson, vice-president of academic and student affairs at Hennepin Technical College, wrote in a college publication in November that Vrona “excels in teaching curriculum based on national industry standards and is a master at implementing practical demonstrations that reinforce required skills.”
“In addition to teaching in the program, Bernie is in his second year of chairing the College’s Academic Affairs and Standards Council and ensuring the college has effective practices and guidelines in place to provide quality curriculum,” she wrote. “Bernie has also provided the leadership that has resulted in program re-certification through the International Fire Science Accreditation Congress. He sits on the National Board of Directors for IFSAC and has recently facilitated and organized their national conference.”
Firefighters once were taught that fire needed a triangle to exist: heat, fuel and oxygen. In Vrona’s case, his success as an educator is perhaps due to another triangle: loving teaching, having experience and enjoying firefighting.
“You have to have a love for teaching,” Vrona said. “You have to have a love for the students, and believe in the students. My experience as executive of different nonprofits allowed me to understand the concepts of supervision. My training with the Golden Valley Fire Department helped me understand the basics, the realities of fire fighting. All of the components put together have helped me do a passable job.”