After 12 years of tough negotiation and planning, Delgado Community College Maritime and Industrial Training Center in New Orleans East is making final preparations to open its new two-story, 19,000-square-foot education facility on April 1.
Rick Schwab, the school’s senior director, said the new $6.5 million center will bring Delgado in line with the demands of its corporate clients.
“We are doubling the size of our classrooms, adding state-of-the-art equipment such as marine simulators, expanding the school’s fire field with additional offshore and radar labs and adding a conference center.”
Prior to the April 1 grand opening, the center consisted of only Firefighters tackle Delgado’s loading terminal project. seven classrooms and five firefighting props – one maritime and four industrial.
“The new building automatically doubled our available classroom space,” Schwab said.
The center’s industry tour opening will allow the center to start phase II of its expansion. Almost immediately the humble complex of portable buildings that has been home to Delgado’s maritime and fire faculty for three decades will be removed to make way for additional parking and fire field improvements.
Beginning in July, the school will begin renovating and expanding its existing fire field training props to take advantage of three additional acres acquired from Delgado’s neighbor, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.
“We’re looking for industry to tell us what they need in order to guarantee the future of Delgado,” Schwab said.
Unlike some schools whose hours of operation are dictated by normal hours, the Delgado center operates 24/7 year round, Schwab said. The center averages between 8,000 and 10,000 students annually.
“We’re busy all year long,” Schwab said.
Rather than training fuels and foams, Delgado operates using a 70/30 mix of diesel and gasoline together with using the types of firefighting foam used in actual emergencies. Much of that foam is donated by industrial clients.
“We upgraded our (wastewater) separator about six years ago,” Schwab said. “We are talking about putting in another separator just for the industrial props. The center was built with a clay/lime base beneath it to help pump everything back into the separator.”
Use of foam is saved for the end of the day to give the Delgado crew time to clean the prop and process the wastewater. As with other fire schools, the wastewater system dictates the size of nozzles and the amount of water flowed during evolutions, Schwab said.
“You get certain companies that want to turn on the monitors and flow water like Niagara Falls,” Schwab said. “You can’t do that because we have to recycle the water.”
Delgado boasts a faculty of 35 instructors. The reputation of Delgado’s fire center owes much more to the instructors and staff than the classroom accommodations, Schwab said.
“Talk to any of our clients,” he said. “They come here because of our instructors and staff. Our field is pretty good but the accommodations have not been great.”
For example, in February a chemical plant in Geismar, LA, brought over 50 firefighters to Delgado for training. The current modular classrooms on site only handle 30 students each.
“We did not have a classroom big enough to hold a large brigade or multiple brigades training at once,” Schwab said. “What we will have to offer beginning in April is big classrooms with all the latest equipment, even wireless connections for laptops.”
Regarding the live fire training, Delgado provides self-contained breathing apparatus for its visiting firefighters. Bunker gear rental is available.
Schwab describes the pending upgrade at the Delgado center as offering a “corporate environment.”
“New Orleans is a very attractive venue,” Schwab said. “That includes warm weather. We are going to have outdoor kitchens on the patio where companies can cook for themselves or have lunch catered if they wish.”
However, hospitality only goes so far. Instead of dormitory space, the center prefers to offer discounts at nearby hotels. And the fire school closes for Mardi Gras every February.
“We find that training and Mardi Gras together is not a good thing,” Schwab said. “One hundred percent attention is not going to happen.”
Beside maritime operations and industrial firefighting, the center offers courses in emergency medicine, water survival, radar training, high angle rescue and confined space rescue. At least 20 percent of the training offered is conducted off-campus and even off-shore.
“We go as far as Houston,” Schwab said. “We are very flexible. We do not work under a college schedule. Our schedule is based on need.”
Obtaining professional fire fighting accreditation is another goal for Delgado’s expansion project. The center is looking into offering ProBoard fire service qualification in the future, Schwab said.
Schwab describes the new Delgado as an “open campus.” With the building nearing completion and the renovation of the fire field beginning in July the instructors are open to suggestions from industrial clients on how best to improve the facility.
“In July we will be running all new fuel lines across the fire field,” Schwab said. “The fuel lines are going to be put in troughs. These will not only be fuel lines going to the existing props but to where we plan to put slabs for the new props.”
Input regarding those new props is being actively sought, Schwab said.
“This is the next level of growth for us,” he said. “This is the opportunity to tailor the facilities to what our clients need most.”
Delgado believes in true partnership, he said.
“We have built relationships that withstand good and bad times,” Schwab said. “Not everything is always rosy. Budgets are tighter. People are looking for the best quality. We like to do whatever we can to give added value when it comes to industrial training.”
Many industrial fire brigades prefer to rotate training among a number of fire schools. Delgado is happy to be part of that rotation, Schwab said.
“We understand too that with the economy the way it is, people are looking for a more affordable training,” he said. “We might have some people that are local coming to us now that used to go out of state. They might not be able to afford that now.”
However, the economic crisis has cut both ways, he said.
“Clients are staying closer to home because of costs and doing more regional training because of the economy,” Schwab said.
Delgado Community College, with multiple campuses throughout the New Orleans area, is the largest community college system in Louisiana. In the late 1970s, the community college took over a 3.3-acre maritime administration campus in east New Orleans that became Delgado’s maritime and industrial training center.
Maritime training remains the largest part of the center’s work, with industrial firefighting slowly gaining ground over the years.
“Maritime is our big business,” Schwab said. “We are probably the number one school as far as maritime training in firefighting. But we’ve always had dreams and hopes that we could expand our industrial fire fighting.”
Today, Delgado is the largest Marine fire fighting training operation in the state and the only maritime /industrial training center in the New Orleans Area.
“Our main goal at this facility is being part of the workforce development umbrella provided by the community college,” said Schwab, a 21-year veteran of the center.
Money to expand the campus was approved in a bond issue in 2007, he said. Unfortunately, the intervening years included a global financial crisis and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
Hurricane Katrina left much of the New Orleans East district severely flooded. What saved the maritime campus were preparations by its neighbors – NASA and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We didn’t have the flooding here because we are surrounded by federal government pumping stations,” Schwab said. “NASA takes care of all these properties as far as pumping out canals.”
The economic downturn also hindered progress.
“The oil and gas business is down,” Schwab said. “We’ve been holding our own. Even though we are part of Delgado Community College, the center itself generates our own money. But our partners in the oil and gas business have definitely suffered.”
However, much of the delay in beginning construction was in acquiring adjoining property for expansion, he said. The fact that Delgado handles fire training for the local NASA and Coast Guard facilities helped.The school has been good neighbors with both for over 30 years.
“We could have built it at other locations, but we wanted to connect to and expand this facility,” Schwab said. “It took us a while because all of the surrounding land is owned by the federal government. We had to negotiate nearly five years to get the extra three acres.”
Delgado is strictly an industrial and maritime fire school. Other than specialized classes for New Orleans or St. Bernard Parish firefighters, the school caters to firefighters facing unique industrial challenges.
With regard to time constraints, teaching industrial firefighters can be far more intense than their municipal cousins.
“We have a lot of green companies come in,” Schwab said. “We take them from scratch to the next level in one day. We see their weaknesses and strengths. But the biggest thing is our instructors are mandated to make sure we have a safe operation.”
After 12 years of delay in getting the new building finished, the director chose April Fool’s Day for the grand opening. It is a joke at Schwab’s expense.
“For 12 years, I’ve been telling people the new building is coming,” he said. “It got to the point that every time I said it, people would roll their eyes like ‘Okay, maybe Rick is starting to lose it.’”
Until the new building is open, the instructors and staff are working hard everyday, ready to go and are looking forward to the future, Schwab said.