What's Working Somewhere: The Carver Fire Department

Deborah Parker reviews why the Carver, MA, Fire Department is able to recruit and retain its call members.

A Massachusetts Call Department Is Turning Away Applicants. What's Going On? Fire Chief Craig Weston needs five more firefighters to meet his personnel requirements in Carver, MA. The chief's biggest problem, however, is that he needs only five more call firefighters right now -- and 23 men and...

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The chief knew he wanted the Carver Fire Department to become the best call fire department around, and he knew who the folks were that could ensure it happened. He began by initiating an honest and open "ongoing conversation" policy between the department and the townspeople -- e-mail hadn't been invented yet -- and part of those conversations were about what additional equipment the department really needed to be safe and effective. (He made sure to clarify needs versus wants, and never tried to scare them, always assuring them the department would manage with what the town could afford.) Then he sat down with his officers.

"My first order of business was to assemble the two deputies, three captains and three lieutenants and make them aware that I was there to support them and needed their help in taking the department to the next level," he said. "I told them change was going to happen, too fast for some and too slow for others, but it was going to happen. Then I asked them each what they thought the immediate and long-term needs of the department were. I never stopped asking, and I never stopped listening."

Over the decade that followed, some of those answers evolved into an established process for hiring all new recruits. It included a written exam to ascertain basic literacy and learning skills, and a psychological exam with a licensed practitioner to make sure only suitable candidates were moved forward. The Commonwealth assisted by publishing (and mandating) a Physical Abilities Test for all municipal firefighters. Carver added the "PAT" to its list. All of this meant a whole lot of new work, and two years along, one of the deputy chiefs, Mark Weston, was named the department's formal Training Officer. He remains in the post 26 years later.

It took about 10 years to unfold, but today, Carver has Firefighter I and II training protocols that meet or exceed those for state certification, written and practical exams for all recruits, and a system in place for all firefighters to receive additional and advanced training as needed, or simply requested. Of Carver's 75 entirely call members, more than 40 are state-certified to the level of Firefighter I-II, 20 are certified to Officer I; 13 are certified to Officer II; 17 are certified to Fire Instructor I; 14 are certified to Safety Officer; and 10 are certified dispatchers.

Importance of Drills

If you're a proud, rescuer-type person at heart, there's nothing worse than letting yourself down, or worse, the people who need you, on a call. Ongoing drills are thus taken very seriously in Carver, and the department has the true luxury of having a separate, town-owned training facility (which it shares with neighboring departments, call and career alike). The lieutenants at each of Carver's three stations are responsible for designing a monthly exercise for his or her crew. They plan ahead to create training sessions that will address perceived needs and/or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) competencies, be challenging and be fun. What's more, every drill is reviewed ahead of time by the training officer to make sure department guidelines are met, the required equipment and apparatus is available, and most of all, that all safety elements have been addressed. (Few corrections need to get made, since the lieutenants are also all safety officers.) The deputy himself is responsible for

designing two "all-company drills" each year that will help all the officers stretch, learn and laugh too.

There's a motto in the U.S. Marines that they will "leave no man behind" on the battlefield. That's not because they like you, I once heard a Marine, only half-in-jest, explain. "It's because they've invested $100,000 in training you." Carver firefighters can take solace in the fact that, even on a "not behaving sweetly" day, they are still being viewed as especially valuable human beings by their fellow firefighters and officers as well. For starters, each new recruit has:

  • Completed a comprehensive application, including a personal and work history, and supplied numerous references
  • Received 70 or higher on a standardized, "civil service-like" exam
  • Passed a medical exam based on state standards for firefighters
  • Passed a psychological assessment
  • Passed the state's Physical Abilities Test
  • Passed background checks and drug screenings
  • Been interviewed by three members of the department
  • Been chosen from the pool of all other competitors for their post
  • Participated in 90 hours of training (with no remuneration)