August Roundtable: Recruiting New Hires

One of the things that has changed since I entered the fire service is the way we hire new firefighters. As long as I can remember, the fire department in Toledo was a “civil service” job. A test was given. A list was established, and persons were hired off that list. I took my first test for the fire department in 1971. I finished 45th. A federal judge threw out that list before I was hired. I took the next test and finished 156th and was subsequently hired.

I am sure that prior to my being hired, it was a little easier for friends of politicians and sons of current or retired firefighters to move up the list and be hired. They were generally kids who had previous knowledge of the job and knew what it took to be a successful employee. I’m sure that some less knowledgeable about or interested in the job were hired as well, but it seemed as if a lot of familiar names rolled through the rosters year after year. — John “Skip” Coleman, retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Question: Does a candidate who wants to become a firefighter and has a little knowledge of the job make a better firefighter than a candidate with little or no desire to become a firefighter who is recruited from the outside?

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
The question probably should be, what kind of a hiring process do you have in place and once you hire candidates, from either side, what do you do to get them into the job or further into the job?

It’s always great when you have a candidate who is already into the job and can’t wait to get hired. I was that way, following in my father’s footsteps. I couldn’t wait to get on a fire department and get started. But what about the candidates just getting interested, who maybe weren’t interested a little while back? I’m not as worried about whether they are into it when they’re interviewing as much as I am about their passion for wanting to become a firefighter. My teaching partner, John Salka, and I use a great quote in many of our classes: “A leader with great passion and few skills always outperforms a leader with great skills and no passion.” I’d rather have anyone who is passionate about what he does than the person who doesn’t give a darn.

We can train just about anyone in the skills to do the job, but it’s hard to create passion. You can, but it takes quality leadership within your organization. It takes firefighters and officers and, yes, a chief, who are all into the job–people who lead by example get fired up about the mission of the fire service and fire up those around them. It’s catching! It’s your circle of influence, the positive (or negative) circle of energy that surrounds you and is gleaned off you by those around you. We can remember the officers and firefighters we worked for who made the day fly by. We couldn’t wait to get to the firehouse and work with them. You felt good just being around them.

It’s easy when they’re already into the job. But in a time when we’re hurting for good people, maybe we should be looking at all of the candidates and hiring people that really want to do the job, period! They are those who want to make a difference, whether or not they are experienced, have a family member in the fire service, or had interest in the job in the past, and develop them into the best firefighters we can.

Bob Metzger, chief,
Golden Gate (FL) Fire Control and Rescue District
Excellent candidates often must be recruited. There are many such prospects who may never have given the fire service a thought because they were never exposed to the career opportunities available. Others may have an inaccurate or unrealistic impression of what being a fire/rescue professional is all about. It is important that we recruit grounded, mature, and committed people who have a bent toward public service. Previous interest is not a requirement for me.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York
In theory, I support recruiting the best applicant for any job. I’m sure there are a lot of good people who would never even consider becoming a firefighter because they have not been exposed to the job in any way. Many firefighters, me included, were led into our careers by a family member who was already in the fire service. Active recruitment can educate a broader range of people on the advantages of working as a firefighter. However, I believe that individuals who have previously shown an interest in becoming firefighters will generally make the best personnel for a department.

There have traditionally been far more applicants for firefighter jobs than there have been openings. And given the current unemployment levels, the job security and benefits offered have made the position even more appealing. But firefighting is not a “normal” occupation. The physical, mental, and emotional obstacles encountered call for applicants who have already displayed an interest in dealing with such challenges. The best new recruits I have worked with are those who have wanted to become firefighters for a long time and have done everything in their power to get the job.

Initiative should be given precedence over recruitment, particularly at a time when many departmental budgets are facing restrictions on their recruitment efforts.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
Most successful candidates begin preparing to be a firefighter long before the position for which they are searching is announced. The majority of our hires are highly motivated and interested in making the fire service their career. We continue to see firefighter recruitment as a very competitive process, which means that we can hire the best.

In addition, even though we find a highly motivated and prepared candidate who is able to successfully pass all aspects of the candidate selection process, we must also ensure that all members in the prospective recruit’s family are made aware of the expectations, risks, and hazards associated with a career in firefighting. This should be done in a family orientation prior to the recruit academy. All too often when we begin the probationary training academy, we find out that a candidate is not suited to be a firefighter. Our philosophy needs to be one that recruits and selects the best candidate, one who has the right attitude, is the best suited to be a member of our department, and has the approval of his immediate family. Therefore, being interested in this profession is one key factor in becoming a firefighter.

Jeffrey Schwering, captain,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
I would hope that all prospective applicants would have interest in the fire service or have a previous fire service background. Actively recruiting those with a genuine interest in our profession makes the job better for all.

In our county, the hunt for a firefighter/paramedic position starts with anyone interested in becoming both. Passing paramedic school, applying at the St. Louis County Fire Academy, and passing the academy once you have been accepted are all steps in the process. After graduation, an individual begins applying at any number of the 42 fire departments or districts that make up the county.

The process gives departments a variety of personalities to look at in the interviews. Some recruits are following in their families’ fire service tradition, others like EMS more than fire, some are looking to be firefighters instead of medics, and some are looking for a paycheck and days off. It is up to the interviewers to determine the best candidate.

The interviewers are looking for recruits who will be able to fill both roles; this is easier said than done. After the recruits are hired, it becomes the company officers’ job to help them be the best they can be and serve our community with pride and professionalism.

As a company officer, I would like to see the new recruit have a background in our job. The young men and women coming on the job today need to understand that this is the greatest job on earth and that we are our brother’s keeper.

Elby Bushong III, deputy chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Departments should always be recruiting the next generation of firefighters. Our department has a recruiting captain who works to educate potential candidates about the physical and educational requirements for a firefighter. We encounter many people who are interested but do not know how to get started in the process. The perception that the candidate has to know or be related to someone in the department is a deterrent to many people. Many of the people our employees talk to are interested but may not know how to navigate the hiring process and feel they will not be successful because of a lack of knowledge. Through the recruiting process, we go out and contact them to acquaint them with the testing and hiring process. Going into high schools, colleges, and sports programs helps connects the candidates with mentoring groups that will be able to assist them through the hiring process.

We have approximately 1,200 to 3,500 people sign up to take our annual test; we may hire on average only 75 to 100 people per year. The larger the group we get to the written test, the more qualified and diverse a group we have to choose from when interviewing. Our best advertising/recruiting is to have our members talk to the public about the system. Word of mouth enables potential candidates to become candidates.

In recent years, we have had more first-time successful test takers than in years past. I attribute this to the following: We are hiring larger numbers, and we have been actively going out to seek new people. We have a large number of candidates, which allows us to choose the best from among a larger and more qualified group than in years past.

Billy Goldfeder, deputy chief,
Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department
It’s a wash and can work either way. If I had to choose, I would lean toward those who want the job because they feel they could love the job. Not all applicants who “know” the job or are interested work out. On the other hand, getting applicants with no preconceived notions can work out either way as well. So, no matter what, the key is massive and intense background checks with nothing left unturned, including psychological and physical evaluations and testing-doing everything you can to make sure you are getting the best. Start with the best; allow nothing to interfere with that. .

Jason Hoevelmann, deputy chief,
Sullivan (MO) Fire Protection District
Hiring should be off a list of qualified individuals who are interested in the fire service. It makes sense to want those who want to be in this profession. These individuals will likely apply themselves more easily and already understand the profession to some extent. I am sure that there are exceptions to the rule, but those exceptions need to apply and test. If they are the best candidates, they should be hired.

Joel Holbrook, captain,
Washington Township (OH) Fire Department
Recruitment and retention seem to be ongoing challenges for many departments, especially in the county where I serve. As an example; my department operates a true combination system–full time, part time, and paid on call. Our full-time numbers have not changed over the past two decades; the same cannot be said for the part-time and paid-on-call rosters. In the past five years, our part-time numbers have declined by an estimated 50 percent, and our part-paid numbers are down nearly the same, if not more. It is to a point where staffing is being strained to its limits. There are several reasons for this: In the part-time ranks, many have taken on full-time jobs. As for the part-paid, the limited numbers available have placed a higher demand for these members’ availability, and training demands have increased. These demands, on top of working a 40-hour-a-week job, interfere with personal time and personal relationships. So they move on.

For some time now, we have been focused on recruitment; we use Internet postings, media releases, and newspaper advertisements. We are also a part of a countywide alliance test to get our name out to all interested in becoming members. We noticed that there just is not a huge number of people wanting to join the fire service in any other capacity than full time. Since a limited number of full-time positions are available in the county, many are seeking employment elsewhere, even out of state. I think you would be hard-pressed to expect greatness from an individual who had no interest in this job and had to be convinced to take it. We must harvest those with a true passion to survive.

Adam Miceli, assistant chief,
Rockland (ME) Fire/EMS
We must ask ourselves why we’re reaching out to those who have no previous interest in the fire service. This practice is unnecessary in most places because of the high number of interested candidates. Attracting people for this job is not difficult in most places. In fact, many career fire departments have trouble handling the numbers of applicants and qualified persons sitting for tests. Other than for some small fire departments, the active pursuit of candidates is generally an attempt to attract a more diverse group of candidates. Anytime the fire service looks specifically for any “type” of candidate other than the best person for the job, it is doing a disservice to itself and the people it protects.

After 9/11, one talk show host, remarking about firefighters, said something like this: “They are one group of people who are not referred to by race, gender, sexual preference, or religion. No one says the ‘Asian fireman or female firefighter or black firefighter.’ They are just firefighters.” We are just firefighters. That’s something we’ve worked hard to be and should work hard to protect.

If a fire department needs to actively attract candidates because of a lack of numbers of persons applying, that is one thing; but seeking applicants previously not interested in a candidate-rich environment simply to diversify the workforce implies reverse discrimination. This job is dangerous enough. We must demand that the best candidate be hired every time.

Mike Gurr, lieutenant,
Pompano Beach (FL) Fire Department
I want the best candidate available, period! In Florida, most new hires are required to put themselves through the Fire Academy and EMT and Paramedic school before anyone will even look at them. That is a significant amount of out-of-pocket money spent with no job guarantee. I think that is asking a lot in today’s economy. So if that applicant happens to be a middle-aged person with a good work history, great. I am also happy if that person is a 19-year-old kid who just spent the past four years in some type of fire explorer program. I am more concerned about why the candidate wants to join our fire department. What is the real motivation? Good testing and interviewing practices should get you the best candidates available. If two candidates scored the same, I would be more inclined to go with the person who had more experience in the fire service or a military or hospital setting.

Richard Wilson, lieutenant,
Bartlett (IL) Fire Department
An active recruitment process will spark some interest that is not normally there. I am not saying go knock on everyone’s door. If you have the right individuals recruiting for your department, it can say a lot about your organization. The recruited candidates may have a stronger desire to do the job than someone who always wanted the job, does not like it, and cannot leave because of financial reasons or job security. We know these members (the crabby firefighters who have been here three years and act as if they have been here for 30 years).

Every incident, public education event, or general training out of the station is a form of recruitment. If the residents see what their fire department is actively doing, they may want to become involved. We sell ourselves every time we leave the station well dressed, in clean apparatus, and displaying professional mannerisms and a positive attitude. This may be all the recruiting needed to have someone sign up as a paid-on-call/volunteer, get trained, and want to become a career firefighter. Some are perfectly happy with part-time status and feel they are giving back to their community.

John Staley, chief,
Thornton (CO) Fire/Rescue
Like any other business, it takes a diverse group of talent to make a department run effectively. That being said, I support recruiting for those areas where talent beyond the fire suppression needs of a community is required. Recruiting individuals who may have an educational background is desirable for life-safety education and public relations. Recruits who bring a background in chemistry or physical education make invaluable members of the hazardous materials team or Wellness committee. In many smaller departments, the employee with a background in the trades, such as welding, auto mechanics, or construction, proves to be valuable by assisting with building maintenance and building construction classes or helping repair equipment.

Determine the needs of your department, and then recruit the people who can bring those talents to your community. Individuals wishing to be firefighters should be encouraged to become knowledgeable in multiple disciplines, to make themselves more attractive for an interview. Many of our recruits have already learned that without an EMT or paramedic certification their chances of employment are greatly reduced. I advise potential firefighters, including those enrolled in university programs for fire science, to look for additional opportunities to enhance their resume–courses in wildland firefighting and hazardous materials operation/technician, Instructor 1 classes, and everything they can take in life-safety education or fire prevention. Although the argument is made that we still have to fight fires, my rebuttal is yes, but we can use many methods that don’t require a hose and an engine to accomplish that objective.

Rodney N. Webb, captain
NTS (NV) Fire and Rescue
The jobs should be offered to folks who want to be and have wanted to be firefighters for some time. Departments are losing a significant number of good people who are going out of state on their initial hiring process. It seems all they want is paramedics who don’t want to fight fire but want the increase in pay. The majority of people applying already have jobs and are taking away the hopes of local personnel who would make great firefighters. One young man has wanted to be a firefighter since he was 14 years old. He has taken the city and county tests 11 times and always gets beat down by an out-of-state person just because that person has prior experience and is a paramedic. Prior experience or paramedic certification does not always mean someone would make a good firefighter. A person who has had a long-time interest in becoming a firefighter should get the job, not someone who, because of bad economic times, decides that this job pays a lot and he might learn to like it.

Richard C. Beaulieu, private,
Cranston (RI) Fire Department
The constantly expanding role of the modern fire service has created the need for more specialized knowledge and training. Although the mission statement is the same, to save lives and protect property, the number and types of incidents to which the modern fire service responds has vastly changed.

The future holds nothing but expanded technology, knowledge, training, and the need for expertise. Fire departments should be using these points to recruit new hires because the number of people with previous interest is declining; high school teachers are pushing their students to go to college to make an adequate income, and there are an incredible number of career paths students can choose. Fire departments that once had thousands of applicants are now seeing mere hundreds during hiring processes. EMS is a significant portion of the modern fire service. Many people who may have had an interest in the fire service may not have an interest in EMS or cannot afford the price of EMT school. To ensure continued excellence in the best job in the world, the fire service needs to begin recruiting new hires at job fairs, be in the schools promoting the job to teenagers, promote how rewarding and challenging the job is and how many opportunities there are in the field such as fire prevention, hazardous materials, technical rescue, fire technology, and emergency management, to name some.

Troy Maness, chief,
East Helena (MT) Volunteer Fire Department
All fire departments, career, combination, volunteer, need to actively recruit firefighters. My experience as a volunteer firefighter is that in this day and age, it is difficult to find folks willing to dedicate the time needed to perform the duties of a firefighter. It seems most recruits get off to a great start and then find out what it really takes to be a firefighter. Then, you start to see the decline in training hours and responses to emergency calls.

On the career side of things in Montana, there seems to be plenty of people interested in testing and applying for positions. There are on average 300 to 400 potential recruits that test for the limited number of jobs available. The turnover rate in the career departments is fairly low, which makes it very competitive.

Brian Ward, training officer,
Gwinnett County (GA) Fireand Emergency Services
It depends on what you are looking for. It is beneficial to recruit from the local college programs if your goal is to build up your EMT/paramedic base or to recruit college graduates. My department has visited EMT and paramedic programs in the area for this reason. If you’re looking for disciplined individuals with some life experience and who are used to a structured environment; you would focus on military personnel. I got my start from an article in my local newspaper in which the Gray Volunteer Fire Department was asking local citizens to volunteer for the department. Until that point, I knew nothing about the fire service, but the chance to give back to the community appealed to me.

Mary Hauprich, safety officer
Islesboro (ME) Fire Department
In my community, women are completely out of the “recruitment” picture. If I hadn’t stumbled headlong into the fire service, I never would have heard of any opportunities available for me there or have discovered a passion for working in the emergency services. It turns out that I’ve contributed a fair bit to the department. I strongly encourage departments to make opportunities available to all citizens of their community–even the seniors, who can contribute greatly. The time to reach out is when kids are in school; let boys and girls know what opportunities are out there. Involve them. They’ll be grown up before you know it.

Rodney Beale, 4th lieutenant,
Mooroolbark Urban Fire Brigade,
Victoria, Australia
In our experience during the major wildfires in our region, we have been inundated with volunteer registration requests (via e-mail, personal appearance at the station).

Everybody wants to be a firefighter at that time. If they were not interested before these events, why should we be interested in them at these times?

In our case, we vet all of the applicants, check the residential qualification (i.e., is it in our area?) and look at the candidate’s ability to respond within SDS time, etc., keeping in mind our Equal Opportunity obligations by law.

First, we provide the candidate with the detailed requirements of brigade membership and attach a preliminary application form. We usually interview the proposed candidate for suitability at that time. If we get the filled-in application form, we process it. If not, that settles the issue.

We tell the candidates they will not be responding on any appliance for at least six months (until they satisfactorily complete our minimum skills recruit training course of approximately 16 weeks), and then only by invitation. The first six months is a probationary period, which begins after the brigade membership approves the application by vote at a brigade meeting. At the end of the probation period, the member is assessed to see if he should proceed to become a full member, the probation period should be extended, or the candidate should not proceed at all.

We actively recruit by open days and advertising. We get good candidates who usually have an interest in the fire service (many by way of family connections). We had discovered in the past that after the first few weeks of training, some about 50 to 75 percent of the individuals dropped out. Now, the above filter and a serious discussion about commitment have helped to ensure that those no longer interested in the job leave before they start training.

Scott Goldenstein, captain,
Mendota Heights (MN) Fire Department
The answer for our department is a combination. Every firefighter has a duty to spread the news as to why they joined the fire department and what it means to them. At the same time, they need to share with potential recruits the sacrifices that have to be made. For a volunteer or paid-on-call firefighter to succeed, he needs to really want it and be willing to make significant sacrifices. Sugarcoating the job to get people to sign up increases the chance that the candidates will leave in a short time, often after the department has incurred the expenses of training and outfitting them). You can teach the skills, but the desire needs to come from within. Our department posts recruitment signs and runs limited ads and then uses an extensive selection process, which is typically conducted every two years. Community involvement and having the support of the community play a huge role in fostering a desire in people to join our department.

Chris W. Hornick, president,
CWH Research, Inc.,
Lone Tree, CO
We should recruit for new firefighters. Research shows that the majority of applicants learn of a recruitment from word of mouth, which primarily comes from current members of a department. This means that family, friends, and relatives of current members will represent the vast majority of applicants. This can severely limit diversity in the applicant pool, including gender, ethnicity, backgrounds, upbringing, and culture/life experience. Just because potential applicants are not familiar with the fire service as a career does not negate their potential to be excellent firefighters. I would recommend visiting the International Association of Fire Fighters Web site to review some of the research for recruiting for diversity and evaluation of best practices we did for that organization a few years back. The fire service needs greater diversity of thought and experience in its membership to effectively address the huge changes that face it in the near future. We should be embracing expanding the applicant pool, not restricting it.

Mike Newbury, captain
St. Louis (MO) Fire Department
Both. The fact is that no one has that crystal ball to know where the next Brennan or Downey will come from. Some might have worked their entire lives aspiring to become the best firefighter possible. Some (like me) may have just been looking for a “good job” when they happened across the fire service and found out: This is what I was meant to do with my life. Not recruiting in every possible environment seriously limits your choices.

Although I want that firefighter in my company who has waited his/her whole life for this opportunity, I don’t feel it is sound judgment to limit yourself or your department when recruiting the next generation.

Further, if your department has the goal of “diversity,” limiting your recruiting pool isn’t going to help your department reach that goal. My best advice is to recruit from the widest cross-section of society possible. It will help your department reach its “diversity” goals and improve the odds of finding that next-generation Brennan or Downey.

Subject: Firefighter recruitment

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