AMU Editor's Pick Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

New Talent: Where Have All the Firefighters and EMTs Gone?

By Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

Quality people are the backbone of any organization. This fact is especially true for first responders in the fire and emergency medical services.

No other professionals are trusted enough to walk into a residence without any formal introduction, a trust so deep that parents are willing to hand over their only child in an emergency. This level of trust requires us to have people who are not only professionally trained, but also have integrity and customer service skills.

The COVID-19 Worker Shortage

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a nationwide employment crisis. For instance, McDonald’s is hiring people at up to $20 per hour, because its franchises are unable to find enough workers. Similarly, other hotel and restaurant chains are struggling to find even a few people who want to work and can keep business operations functional.

This decrease in available employees for customer service has also led to an increase in operational costs. However, the decline in fire and emergency medical services (EMS) workers began long before the pandemic.

Unfortunately, this issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, people considering a fire service or EMS career have additional reasons, including a fear of infection and a lack of personal protective equipment, to consider another profession.

The Real Reasons for the Downward Trend in New Firefighters and EMTs

At their core, fire and EMS are blue-collar jobs that require technical training at the entry level. But to progress to supervisory/management levels in a first responder organization, you need to develop more specialized knowledge – generally through education – and on-the-job experience.

As we have seen over the past couple of decades, the number of high school students who graduate and want to take blue-collar, entry-level jobs has plummeted. Formerly, there was a stigma associated with attending college.

With the advent of student loans in the 1980s, that attitude underwent a change. No longer was college only reserved for the wealthy; everyone could go. Many colleges grew, as did the cost of tuition. Because employers started to set parameters for hiring that were based on college degree attainment, everyone seeking a good professional job felt that it was necessary to attend college and attain a bachelor’s degree.

Because most junior and high school kids do not have a solid idea of what they want to do for a living, they follow their friends who are going to college. As a result, our base of potential new fire and EMS service employees dwindled.

How Do Our Employees Find the Fire Department?

While I haven’t conducted a formal scientific survey, I have conversed with many of my friends in the fire service. I found one common theme among us; we did not initially set out to work in the fire department.

As for myself, I went to college to become an engineer. After I was introduced to a cooperative education (co-op) job, I decided engineering was not for me.

My parents were volunteer firefighters and suggested I give it a try. Now, 27 years later, the rest is history.

There are generally two groups of people who enter first responder jobs. One group consists of a small percentage of people who decided that while their friends were on a collegiate path, they preferred to enter a vocational school. Many vocational schools have a fire and emergency medical technician (EMT) training program as a curriculum.

This type of program is good; it gives aspiring first responders a start at an early age. Because they chose that type of career, they often have a dedication and desire for the profession.

The other group of first responders are people who have been in a career for years and desire a change. These people are often the best candidates, but the drawback is that when they make the transition to become a first responder, their age prevents them from having a full 25-year career. The pension differences in some states make it difficult for such people to work long enough to achieve full pension benefits and still be young enough to perform a physically demanding fire service or EMT job.

How Do We Capture Potential Employees?

So how we attract new first responders? This is the million-dollar question.

I have heard such a wide range of explanations for the problem of recruiting new employees. Some prospective employees think our pay is at the poverty level (in some areas of the country, this is true); others view us as people with extraordinarily little skills and education. While you may feel that running into a burning building is counterintuitive to being smart, there are a number of fire service professionals who have college degrees and even advanced degrees.

For instance, the city of Columbus, Ohio, has a requirement that you must have a bachelor’s degree to take the test for battalion chief. Similarly, many chief-level officers must have master’s degrees to strive for a promotion.

We must begin to create labor force summits in our communities. Ideally, we should bring together public school systems, vocational schools, the local chamber of commerce, and leaders of fire and emergency service organizations.

We should brainstorm and create ways to attract, train, and employ the next generation of firefighters. After all, if we do not have a workforce with enough firefighters and EMTs, we do not have first responder organizations that can deliver quality service.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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