Hiring Experienced Firefighters During Tough Times

By Brian Ward

Money is short, staffing is decreasing, and there are no signs of relief in the near future. However, EMS and fire calls do not just stop because times are tough; if anything, they increase.

Hiring experienced firefighters and completing their evaluation/training through a one-week fast-track or lateral academy evaluation program is one way to fill your ranks and save training money and time. Although we want to fill the vacant spots, we must be careful and not trade quality for quantity. Nevertheless, if appropriately planned and conducted, this can be a tremendous program. From another perspective, such a program may be the deciding factor the next time you ask your elected officials for additional personnel or equipment; it demonstrates that your department is fiscally responsible. Let’s look at the advantages of holding such an academy, particularly the cost savings, as well as the preparation needed, the basic applicant requirements, and the actual day-to-day operations.

 

APPLICANT REQUIREMENTS

 

In addition to meeting the minimum Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services (GCFES) hiring requirements, lateral academy applicants must have at a minimum the following: National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications (NPQ) Firefighter I and II and NPQ Hazardous Materials Awareness (Operations is preferred) certifications; completed a 10- to 16-week comprehensive fire recruit school; a minimum of two years of experience in a career department; and emergency medical technician (EMT-I) or paramedic (EMT-P) certification.

Before members can be fully certified as a Firefighter II in GCFES, we mandate that they first receive their NPQ Firefighter I and II; NPQ Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations; Emergency Response to Terrorism, Safety and Survival [a mandatory three-day GCFES rapid intervention crew (RIC) class]; medical unit emergency vehicle operator course (EVOC); and EMT-I training.

 

COST SAVINGS

 

At a recruit school, firefighter training takes about 13 weeks and EMT-I training takes an additional 13 weeks. If you add up the time and the resources required to effectively train one recruit from start to finish and compare it with that of evaluating an experienced firefighter at a lateral fire academy, the savings are astronomical. The salary cost for training a recruit for 26 weeks is $16,250, whereas the salary cost for evaluating one lateral academy candidate for one week is about $650 to $1,000, depending on that trainee’s years of service. Think of the extra equipment you could buy with the extra $15,000 saved per person trained/evaluated.

This program had been considered for some time before finally getting off the ground in early 2006. In 2007, I was asked to take over the program; I revised the program later that year. As with any well-functioning program, the program was revised again in 2008 to include the necessary updates, such as current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards and minimum departmental standards. Once the core of the program has been developed, the updates are generally quick and easy in comparison with the development phase.

From 2006 to 2009, we accepted 52 candidates into the lateral program, of which 49 graduated; 39 of them still remain with us. Five left the department within one year, three within two years, and two left within three years.

During this time frame, we saved $592,800 in salary costs for the 39 personnel retained. The 80-percent retention rate is comparable to that of a typical recruit class. Even if 10 firefighters in the lateral program eventually leave the department, if a member remains for one to three years of service, we do recoup some of the evaluation cost.

In a recruit school, we may pay a recruit’s salary anywhere from two to 26 weeks. If the recruit drops out during that time, we recoup nothing.

 

PREPARATION

 

There are some concerns about starting this type of program, such as accurately assessing the firefighter’s skills to ensure that the member understands his role within the new fire department and being able to predict what the member’s mental status will be on the fireground. These are all vital concerns and will be addressed throughout the evaluation period.

To capitalize on the possible savings, you need to complete certain tasks as soon as possible. The last thing you want is for the applicants to have idle time because some items are not in order. As soon as you have received approval to implement a lateral evaluation program, do the following:

  • Check your personnel supplies, such as firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) and uniforms, and replenish as needed.
  • Develop or purchase a Firefighter I/II 100-question test.
  • Develop or obtain a firefighter skill checklist and compare it to the NFPA Job Performance Requirements and your state’s firefighter skill objectives, to validate them.
  • Consider possible live fire training dates, and arrange to meet NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, requirements.
  • Develop a detailed calendar of program events. Allow one week for three to five personnel and two weeks for six to 10 personnel.
  • The most important point to remember to make this program successful is that this is an evaluation period and not a teaching period.

 

 

EVALUATION TIME

 

Let’s consider four personnel entering the program per one instructor. Once you have established the program and ironed out the kinks, you may increase to six to eight members per instructor for evaluation purposes, not including live fire drills. Everything is set up, all key preparations are complete, and our calendar is set for a one-week evaluation time. Let’s go to work.

Day One. Although there is no downtime scheduled in this program, the first day is more relaxed than most. The key items you must cover on Day One are the pertinent standard operating procedures (SOPs). What do firefighters need to know and expect before they get to shift? Most of the time, each company officer has his own set of rules, which he will review with the new firefighter. This step takes about an hour or so after introducing students to the new department and showing them around the fire academy.

Next, we identify all the key areas in NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and how the standard relates to our department. Even though we are reviewing standards, this is still a great time for introducing the department and showing the relevancy of the standards.

On this day, we also administer the Firefighter I/II written test. We use a 100-question multiple-choice test to determine where recruits are in terms of knowledge or cognitive level, but we don’t expect everyone to remember the irrelevant or minute details in every textbook; 70 percent is passing. So, we tell them in the hiring process that there is a test and on which textbook it is based. Currently, the test is incorporated into our initial hiring process, which saves about two hours on Day One.

Some other key items to discuss include drug and alcohol awareness, the critical incident stress program, the employee assistance program, the department career ladder, the schedule for the week, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) fit test.

Day Two. On this day, we begin the hands-on skills portion that generally occupies the next two days. Starting slowly, we review our apparatus and the typical tools and equipment carried on each unit and their locations. At this point, we move into ensuring familiarity with our SCBAs, RIC packs, and PPE.

Some of the other typical skill evaluations covered on Day Two include the following:

 

  • Forcible entry (inward- and outward-opening doors, masonry and metal walls, garage doors, and windows).
  • Basic knots (bowline, figure eight, safety, clove hitch, and half hitch).
  • Extrication (walk-through of considerations, hazards, purchase points, scenarios).
  • Salvage and overhaul (required procedures and tools).

     

    Day Three.This is judgment day—many personnel have shined, but some have faltered. The morning starts with the applicants performing our physical agility test while wearing an SCBA and breathing air. This drill is an important aspect of the evaluation period, as is the live fire training. The drill is an obstacle course and comprises eight tasks as follows:

    1. Extending the fly of a 24-foot extension ladder.
    2. Carrying a high-rise pack up three flights of stairs.
    3. Making 50 strikes on the roof simulator using an eight-pound sledgehammer.
    4. Dragging a 150-foot section of hose, which is comprised of 50 feet of three-inch and 100 feet of 1¾-inch hose.
    5. Moving a 16-foot ground ladder horizontally 10 feet.
    6. Performing a right-hand search through a maze in the training tower.
    7. Fully opening a hydrant.
    8. Dragging a 160-pound manikin 100 feet.

     

    Although we do not impose a time limit, stopping or running out of air during this drill means failure. This drill is critical because it allows the instructor to determine the member’s proficiency in tasks that a firefighter must be able to perform on the fireground. This helps in determining the applicant’s susceptibility to claustrophobia, a tendency to pull his mask off, his dexterity in working with PPE, and whether the individual is physically fit enough to enter a live fire scenario. This entire drill takes an average person between eight and 10 minutes to complete.

    After a little break, we continue with the evaluation of the items on our checklist:

    • Ladders (extension, roof, ground, folding, and attic) (photo 1). 
      Click to Enlarge

      (1) Photos courtesy of Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services.

    • Ventilation (horizontal and vertical) (photo 2).
      Click to Enlarge
      (2)
    • Search and rescue (photo 3).
      Click to Enlarge
      (3)
    • Water supply. We commonly have to review our portable hydrants and five-inch hose.
    • Finally, the student has to demonstrate through simulation the extinguishment of a vehicle fire, dumpster fire, and residential fire. We do not expect the individual to act as an officer while demonstrating the extinguishment. However, there are several hazards and basic but key items on our checklist of which all firefighters should be aware and able to recognize.

     

    Make sure to tell the applicants to eat a light lunch (heavy lunches don’t seem to work very well), because afterward we run our live fire drills in strict accordance with NFPA 1403. We have found that we can train and prepare any firefighter for the field by following these minimum guidelines.

    We evaluate students on attaining three objectives: successfully finding and attacking the fire, using proper search techniques and extricating any victim while operating as part of a team, and applying proper ventilation techniques. As the students perform these tasks, a company officer from the field supervises them, another officer or instructor watches through a thermal imaging camera (TIC), and the incident recorder watches the monitor display from the TIC transmission. Above everything else, we want to make sure that each applicant is safe. Throughout this process, we grade them on techniques, communication with their partners, endurance, and general composure within the smoke- and heat-filled environment. Using your skill sheets to grade the applicants will help ensure objectivity and continuity among applicants.

    Day Four.Now that the applicants have completed the live fire and the physical agility test, they can relax a little. They will spend the first half of Day Four going through EMT-I skill check-offs and reviewing our EMS SOPs and med unit procedures. It is important to note that paramedics may need an extra day to complete their check-offs, so plan accordingly. Several of the required EMT skills include the following:

    • Checking blood glucose.
    • Performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
    • Using an automated external defibrillator.
    • Airway methods.
    • Applying a cervical collar and a Kedrick extrication device.
    • Administering D50.
    • IVs.
    • Stretcher training.
    • Trauma and medical assessments.

     

    For the second half of the day, they will receive EVOC classroom training on their station’s assigned medical unit and on the department’s driving SOPs, apparatus specifications, state laws, and legal liability. This generally takes about four hours to complete, and they are sent home with the instructions to study all of it.

    Day Five.Although this day can be slightly nerve-racking for the testing portion, most people enjoy this day since it’s like graduating all over again. The day begins with students taking the written test on the EVOC and the medical unit specifications. Generally, these should be completed and graded within two hours. Afterward, we move outside to examine the medical unit for such items as equipment, location of the oil and transmission fluid dipsticks, proper tire air pressures, and so forth.

    Once they are comfortable with the medical unit, trainees take a trip on our driving course. They can practice as much as they see fit or until it is obvious that they will never be able to drive correctly. Most people take four or five trips and then attempt the graded run; they have two attempts to successfully complete it. They must complete it within a certain time limit but slowly enough that they hit no more than six cones out of approximately 200. It’s very good practice while preparing to finish the week before taking the med unit out for 15 miles of graded road driving. If the applicants have successfully completed all of the required objectives, they are ready to hit the field.•••

    Although the lateral fire academy requires a lot of work and setting it up can be strenuous for the instructor, it’s worth it if it’s the deciding factor in hiring personnel or receiving needed equipment. There may be some instances in which the course may require scheduling an extra day or two in advance for unforeseen circumstances such as weather.

    Overall, since we implemented this program, we have trained on average 12 people per year at a salary savings of $182,400 for our department, which is not too bad. If you look at everything involved (instructor salary, fuel cost, water consumption, bringing in adjunct instructors from the field, insurance, and so forth), we are probably in the neighborhood of saving about $250,000 a year for our department.

    Of course, some personnel will not make it. If they fail to meet the standard, even though already certified, don’t feel bad about not letting them on the the job in your department. This job and some departments are not for everyone. We will never need a person badly enough to just fill a spot so others can get hurt. They can elect to go to recruit school or return to their previous job. It is extremely important to make them aware of this risk up front and explain that they are taking a chance based on how they perceive their skills and knowledge.

    BRIAN WARD is a firefighter/acting officer with Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services. He is a past training officer and chairman of the Metro Atlanta Training Officers. A State of Georgia advocate for Everyone Goes Home and the Membership Task Force cochair for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), he was recently awarded the National Seal of Excellence from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation/Everyone Goes Home. Ward has an associate degree in fire science and is completing his bachelor’s degree with the University of Cincinnati. He is the founder of FireServiceSLT.com and is Georgia Smoke Diver #741.

     

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