Thorpe traveled the world during his fire safety career but landed back at GTCC leading fire occupational program

Published on: February 29, 2024
Matt Thorpe's fire safety career gave him everything he needs to be an instructor
"Everything I knew about GTCC … it (GTCC’s Fire Protection Technology Program) was one of the best known in the state."

Matt Thorpe wanted to follow in his father’s aviation footsteps and become a pilot. That’s what landed him at Guilford Technical Community College more than 30 years ago.

But as often happens in life, plans changed. Thorpe still got to travel around the world, just in a much different manner.

Just over a year into his studies at GTCC, Thorpe decided he wanted to be a firefighter. It was a career that was born in the small town of King, N.C., but wound up taking him to places like Cape Town, South Africa, and Quebec and Newfoundland, Canada.

And earlier this year, his career came full circle when he was named director of GTCC’s fire occupational extension program.

“I knew the position was coming open, and it piqued my interest,” Thorpe said of his new job at GTCC. “I had been doing the same thing for 15 years and wanted a new challenge. Everything I knew about GTCC … it (GTCC’s Fire Protection Technology Program) was one of the best known in the state. It was already working like clockwork. Having the insight of knowing how the program worked was amazing.

“It’s a long-running program. We’re on our 46th academy right now. I knew we could still do more, and I wanted to expand the college’s programs across Guilford County, at the individual (fire) departments and with the new expanded high school program.”

Thorpe got involved in firefighting when he was a young adult and became one of King’s first full-time firefighters when he was 24. He wound up staying with the King department for a decade and was an assistant chief when he left.

During his time in King, he discovered he had a knack for writing about firefighting and was hired by publishing companies to help write and edit firefighting manuals, something he continued doing until recently.

When North Carolina’s state fire marshal was searching for someone to write new curriculum for state programs, Thorpe was a natural fit. He began working in research and program development with the state fire marshal, a job that led him to all corners of the state.

Every five years, as the standards were updated, he would help with the rewrites of all of North Carolina’s accredited programs. Eventually, he would serve as the accreditation program manager.

While working for the state, Thorpe served as a board member for the International Fire Service Accreditation (IFSAC) and was a site team lead for the organization.

“Part of our job was to newly accredit and reaccredit states, providences, and fire departments across the world,” said Thorpe. “I went to Canada a few times and to South Africa when the Cape Town fire department wanted to get its accreditation.

“Cape Town is a massive city. I went out and visited the training centers, observed them teaching classes and practical skills, and they were doing everything right,” said Thorpe, who spent two weeks there.

His volunteer work with the IFSAC was challenging at times, but well worth the effort.

“The most difficult place I went with IFSAC was probably Quebec because I had to have an interpreter for most of it,” recalled Thorpe. “But they introduced us to their culture and food, and it was a beautiful city.”

Thorpe’s position with the state was ever-changing and the duties of certification specialist eventually fell under his purview. Which is how he wound up back at GTCC.

“I would go out to community colleges and high schools to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing,” said Thorpe. “And one of those schools was GTCC.”

He began his new role at GTCC on Jan. 4, and so far, it’s been an eye-opening experience.

“I thought I knew how much equipment we had here, but really had no idea,” he said. “I was shocked to learn we had a 100-foot ladder truck. I don’t know another community college in the state that has one of those. That’s unheard of. Some programs are still trying to get an engine. I was floored to learn how much equipment was here.”

He has also quickly made a mark on the program, instituting new classes that attract attention across the country.

“Firefighters want hardcore training, so we brought in some specialties such as the Truck Company Ops class. We just opened it, and all 40 slots filled in 12 minutes, and half of the students are from out of the state. We had six guys from New Mexico last time, and this time, we have some from as far away as Rhode Island,” Thorpe said of the week-long class that GTCC hosts in April and October.

Thorpe continues to give back to a career that has been so rewarding. He battles PTSD and depression and “was not coping in healthy ways” after his firefighting career ended.

“When I retire, I plan to continue to work with the emergency services community, just in a different role,” said Thorpe, who will start a Master of Psychology program at Fayetteville State University this fall. “I’d love to open up a specialty program to assist with substance abuse and mental health for public safety workers. Firefighters are seeing terrible things in the span of their careers, and I want to be able to support them. Emergency services personnel are trained very well to do their jobs, but they are not trained to go home and deal with these images.”

However, Thorpe is starting now and educating new cadets and letting them know it’s ok to talk about these emotions. The emotions are real, and they need to be addressed so cadets can carry on long and healthy careers in the industry.

“We take part of one day at the beginning of the academy to talk about the difficult parts of the job. Firefighting is a great career, but the things you see and how you deal with those things are important. We tell them you don’t have to ‘suck it up’ and bury difficult emotions. It’s ok to have feelings. We just need to learn how to express them in healthy ways.”

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