Front Range Community College offers opportunities with GIS program

July 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Every thing you Need to Know

Jim Montague doesn’t drive a fire engine, but he wants to make sure the Poudre Fire Authority can respond to any emergency within five minutes.

As the authority’s geographic information specialist, Montague makes the physical and computer-based maps that firefighters use to get from their stations to the homes and businesses where people need their assistance.

“It’s mission critical” for the first responders to arrive as quickly as possible, Montague said Thursday.

Using data from the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County, Montague maps 1-square-mile areas, then breaks each one down to quadrants — one per page — so firefighters can easily read the maps as they rush to a scene in the middle of the night.

Along with streets and addresses, Montague includes fire-specific information such as the locations of fire hydrants or trail markers, he said.

Montague, 63, hasn’t always worked in GIS, as the specialty is known. His 26-year career as a software engineer for Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard ended when he was laid off in 2003, he said.

A friend working in GIS got him interested in the field, and he went to front Range Community College to earn a certificate in GIS. He graduated in 2006 and went to work for Poudre Fire Authority.

Dave Skiles, a former professional services manager for a GIS software company, has built the college’s GIS classes into an undergraduate certificate program. Nine GIS classes are required, two of which are electives.

During the spring semester, 138 students were enrolled in the certificate program, Skiles said. Ninety percent of the students have either a bachelor or master’s degree when they start the program, which takes three or four semesters to complete, he said.

Five students were hired last spring before they finished the program, he said. Skiles helped them finish the requirements outside of class, he said.

The median wage for computer GIS technicians in 2011 was $38.43 an hour or $79,930 a year, according to O-Net Online. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts jobs in computer systems analysis will grow faster than average.

Besides fire services, GIS can be used in health care, to decide where services are needed; environmental services; and land use, he said.

University of Colorado student Sterling Loetz, a geology major, is studying GIS at front Range this summer to advance his future career.

“That’s what I want to do, produce maps,” said Loetz, 26. He’s interested in looking at how elevation relates to the folding and faulting of the Earth’s crust. He foresees using 3-D applications to create images, he said.

“I’m surprised by what the software can do,” Loetz said.

Although GIS involves a lot of programming, Montague doesn’t just sit at his desk to create the Poudre Fire Authority’s maps.

“I do a lot of field checking,” Montague said. The city recently changed its marker trails, so he walks or bikes the trails with a GPS to update the maps, he said.

“I manage a lot of data,” he said.

He knows he could make more money as a GIS specialist if he worked elsewhere, but Montague finds his work with Poudre Fire very rewarding.

“For me, … I want to give something back to the citizens of Fort Collins and the surrounding area,” Montague said. The work he does, “in some small way, could help save a life.”

Victoria Camron can be reached at 303-684-5226 or .

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