“In the UK, it took me four years and a lot of hard work to get my systems division officer to sign off on me as qualified,” Gardiner said. “Over here, a six week basic training course is enough to get a certificate that makes them think they are qualified.”
ICEM, formerly known as the Fire Safety Engineering College, is working to convince the fire fighting community throughout the region to focus on acquiring actual vocational skills rather than a paper trail that may signify very little regarding competence.
“Here you get a certificate for every bit of training completed,” Gardiner said. “But that doesn’t mean you can actually do the job.”
Based in the Oman capital of Muscat, the college offers academic and vocational programs in fire safety engineering, fire safety management, facilities management, well engineering and health, safety and environmental management. ICEM, licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education in Oman, is affiliated with the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K.
“We are the only college in the Middle East linked to a British college that offers three and four-year degree programs in these specialties,” Gardiner said. “It compares with any four-year program available in the US.”
An average of 1,000 full-time higher education students and several thousand vocational students enrolled in short training programs attend ICEM annually.
“We are one of the only training centers outside the U.S. that offers IFSAC accredited NFPA training,” Gardiner said.
Gardiner, formerly an operations commander with the West Midlands Fire Service in the U.K., took charge as CFO at ICEM late last year. Aside from taking a tough position on qualifications, he has made his opinion on the necessity of refresher training clear.
“I’m big on refreshers,” Gardiner said. “I think there is a big issue in keeping pace with changes in technology.”
As an example, Gardiner turns to his early career before fire fighting as a plumber.
“I trained as a plumber back in 1977,” he said. “I was trained using copper pipes rather than PEX. I was taught how to solder joints. Today, everything is different. I would not be competent but I am still certified.”
One recent student returning to ICEM for a refresher represented the worst case scenario for Gardiner’s argument.
“He had been here four years ago for six weeks to do his initial course,” Gardiner said. “When he came back he had forgotten which way was up with his breathing apparatus. He couldn’t deploy a hose on his own. There had been no maintenance of his competence.”
ICEM, established nearly 16 years ago, initially concentrated on fire training for the aviation market. Today, the college trains firefighters from 18 countries across the Middle East and Africa. Aside from students representing the oil and gas industry, the college’s client list includes organizations such as NATO and the U.S. military, Gardiner said.
Another factor setting ICEM apart from its competitors in the Middle East, India and Africa is a faculty of highly qualified instructors, he said.
“We’ve got Iraqis, Jordanians, Brits and others,” Gardiner said. “We might get complaints from the students about the hose being too heavy or the water is too far away, but we never get complaints about the instructors or the instruction.”
Fire props available on site include simulations of crashed aircraft, confined space rescue, oil and gas flanges, an LPG tank, a loading rack and a breathing apparatus facility.
“Exercises in the BA facility have gone as long a 25 minutes, the full duration of a cylinder of breathing air,” Gardiner said. “The facility produces hot smoke as well as cold. Bearing in mind that local temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degress Fahrenheit) it can be a very hot environment. We can also do flashovers too which is quite unique, particularly in the Middle East.”
The loading rack prop is capable of 20 fire configurations, giving each student a different challenge from the last, he said.
Companies that prefer to use their own instructors frequently rent the use of the fire field props, Gardiner said.
“They just use our facilities and we provide a safety officer,” he said.
Instead of a dormatory, ICEM students are housed at nearby four-star hotels and bused to the fire school. ICEM has 25 classrooms on campus, including an online student learning center.
ICEM’s training field also has a wide variety of apparatus for students to utilize.
“We’ve got several ex-UK fire rescue tenders for structural fire fighting,” Gardiner said. “We also have two specialized aviation fire vehicles or crash trucks. They can pump on the run and meet U.K. Civil Aviation Authority regulations as well as local regulations.”
Despite an outstanding staff and fire field, ICEM is an underground success story. The college is a best kept secret within an even better kept secret, said Gardiner. The greater of the two secrets is the country of Oman itself.
“You discover that the people and lifestyle are fantastic,” Gardiner said. The country borders Saudi Arabia on the west, the United Arab Emirates on the northeast, Yemen on the southwest and the strategic Strait of Hormuz on the north.
That exotic location means that ICEM is never lacking for a new challenge.
“Next week we have an all female course for workers at King Saud University in Riyadh,” Gardiner said. “That will be really novel.”