Requirement reset: How some FDs are tackling staffing challenges
While some departments are reevaluating their fitness and education requirements, among others, most have changed nothing
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As the number of firefighter applicants has dwindled in recent years, many departments have been forced to reevaluate their hiring practices.
As part of FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want in 2023 survey, participants were asked what application requirements their fire department has amended in order to attract more job applicants, with several options provided. Interestingly, 48% of the respondents indicated that their department has not changed any practices.
For those departments that have altered their application requirements, the top three amendments were:
- Changed fitness requirements (19%);
- Eliminated certification/licensure requirements before employment (18%); and
- Changed educational requirements (16%).
Other changes departments made to draw more applicants were changing the minimum age for applicants (6%), relaxing marijuana use policy (4%), and eliminating psychological screenings (4%). Further down the list, but not far behind these three, were the elimination of a polygraph exam (3%), the elimination of credit checks (2%) and the elimination of proof of citizenship (1%).
The fact that many departments have changed requirements is significant alone, much less when you look at each of these requirements. The fire service has long been somewhat rigid, methodical and traditional in what was required of a recruit, but as the labor market has changed, so too has the need to reevaluate fire department hiring practices.
Let’s take a closer look at the impact of some of these changes.
As we can all attest, fighting fires can be a physically demanding endeavor. Therefore, some may cringe at the idea of lowering physical fitness standards in order to hire new firefighters. After all, speaking for myself, if I go down, I want to know that someone on my crew has the physical ability to pull me out successfully.
However, my concerns have been calmed by what I’ve heard from others in training divisions in area departments, specifically that during their recruit academy the new hires can be conditioned through daily physical training incorporated to their training. Most departments do this anyway. So while the thought of reducing this requirement might seem alarming, it is usually mitigated during longer recruit academies where the recruits are physically conditioned over time.
Lowering pre-hire certification requirements can be viewed in a similar manner to fitness requirements. For instance, in most full recruit academies, departments will train the recruits how the department sees fit and certify them in the areas that are required, such as their firefighter certification, EMT/paramedic certification and hazmat certification. While it can be a great benefit to hire certified firefighters, it’s not essential to follow this approach. You can certainly hire non-certified individuals and train them within your department and facilitate their certificate-earning under your department’s training program.
When it comes to educational requirements, one option instead of requiring certain educational standards to be hired is to assign each promotion or rank an associated educational requirement. This gets an individual in the door and on the truck, and encourages them to pursue their education once they are on the team. There are many people who don’t have the ability to obtain a higher education until they secure a job that provides a stable income. Even better, many departments will provide educational incentives such as tuition reimbursement.
A mixed bag of changes
As we move down the list, the door is open for more mixed opinions of altered practices.
For instance, depending upon what your minimum hiring age is now, it could be controversial within your department to lower it any further. Firefighting is a dangerous job, and some would argue that lowering the hiring age from 21 to 18 could put the members – and the department – at increasing risk. Of course, let’s not forget that the U.S. military, nor the Canadian Forces for that matter, have an issue with someone who is 18 enlisting for military service, so maybe we shouldn’t be concerned either.
As for eliminating psychological screenings as part of a hiring process, this will come down to department preference. Psychological screenings certainly have their benefit for departments that utilize them. They can identify whether or not a job applicant is mentally fit for a career in public safety, whether by zeroing in on traits that could heighten an already stressful response as a firefighter or by spotting tendencies toward arson. Either way, it could be argued that in identifying these traits it could save a fire department a lot of headache down the road, so it can clearly be seen as a compromise in the hiring process to eliminate this step.
Relaxing policy on off-duty marijuana use is another area that the individual department will have to evaluate. There are many states where marijuana use is now legal, or is allowed for certain medical conditions. It falls on the individual department to determine whether it has the appetite to relax these standards, but we also have to acknowledge that most departments don’t have any regulations against off-duty personnel consuming alcohol and being impaired away from the fire station. Some would argue this is contradictory. This is probably a conversation that will further develop over time as laws continue to change. These changes may prompt us to look internally to determine if these legal changes warrant us to revisit policies surrounding marijuana use off duty, or even the use of CBD products, which can also contain THC, the psychoactive component found in marijuana.
As for the elimination of credit checks, polygraph tests and proof of citizenship, while these steps may or may not cost a department to conduct, they would open the applicant pool to some applicants who might otherwise be wary of applying. It may not be as concerning for a department as to what the credit score of an employee may have, but eliminating a polygraph has potential to create some scrutiny. This could lead some to theorize that the department is suddenly OK hiring someone who may be dishonest. At the same time, there are plenty of departments that do not conduct them such exams as part of their hiring process. As for proof of citizenship, this is certainly a topic that could lead to debate. One camp might insist that it is the department’s responsibility to verify that someone who serves their citizens provide proof of being legally eligible to work, while others might insist that it is a step the department can avoid because this should be picked up by other agencies in the applicant’s pursuit of various state certifications, such as their EMT credential.
Finding the previously missed firefighters
Reflecting on these changes makes me think of ways my own department, and those in my region, have also altered hiring practices. My department recently relaxed certification requirements as we entered into a partnership with our local community college to provide EMT training and state certification, whereas we had previously required applicants to hold an EMT credential. Now, we train new recruits in all areas of required certifications to do the job. It has proven beneficial for us as well, as we have hired some individuals whom we otherwise would not have been able to hire. It has also strengthened relationships with other partners, such as our local community college.
There certainly isn’t a silver bullet fix for our current hiring challenges, but as we must adapt and overcome on the fire scene, we must adapt and overcome when it comes to hiring firefighters. It is both encouraging and interesting to see how different agencies are changing their approaches in order to put firefighters on the truck. We like to think that we are now getting firefighters who previously we would have missed, and no matter what, our department sees that as a good thing. What about your department?