Interest in firefighting soars
Local academies make room for needed recruits


More people than ever are training to be firefighters in Southwest Florida.

It’s a surge local fire chiefs and instructors at two local fire academies attribute to the hero status firefighters have taken on since the attack on America, the poor economy and greater marketing efforts.

For the first time, the Fort Myers Fire Academy at the Lee Vocational School has had to add a third class this year because of the interest.

January’s class is full and more than 120 people applied for 30 spots in May’s class.

Ninety-six people passed a test given earlier this year by the Employment Testing Cooperative Southwest Florida, which means they’ll be added to a list area fire departments use to select people they’ll train and hire.

The 11 departments that make up the employment testing cooperative need 40 firefighters this year and 50 the following year, said Steve Juntikka, operations chief with the Iona McGregor Fire District and chairman of the cooperative.

Naples fire instructors are seeing the same influx.

More than 100 people applied for 25 seats in Naples Fire Training Center’s January class — the most ever.

“We don’t question the reasons they’re here, but there’s definitely been an increase since Sept. 11,” said Tim Day, director of the Fort Myers Fire Academy.

In 2000, 37 people attended two courses offered during the year at the Fort Myers Fire Academy. The following year saw a slight increase with 45 people signing up for the year’s two courses.

This year the academy expects to graduate at least 90 firefighters by adding a third class in November to meet the demand.

“Prior to last year we had classes with 14 and 15 people in them,” Day said. “We’re really seeing a big demand now.

“If we could do more, we would, but there’s only so much classroom space,” he added.

Each class at the Fort Myers Fire Academy can accommodate up to 30 people.

In 1995 and 1996 the Naples Fire Training Center saw an increase in applications — about 80 for 50 spots in two classes, said Jim McEvoy, Naples city fire chief who also oversees the Naples Fire Training Center.

“That was the most we ever had — until now,” McEvoy said.

He’d like to add more classes, but there aren’t enough instructors or the space.

Everyone who didn’t find a seat in the January class was put on a waiting list for the next class in June.

Students at the Fort Myers Fire Academy say they are looking forward to their November graduation.

Sept. 11 inspired many of them to become firefighters.

After the attack on America, the heroic actions of New York firefighters led Cape Coral resident Rob Wall, 32, to the profession.

“All of my friends from high school became firefighters and they’re always talking about brotherhood,” said Wall, a student of the Fort Myers Fire Academy. “After the third day here, I knew what they were talking about.”

John Reitenbach, a cadet at the Fort Myers Fire Academy, said he always wanted to be a firefighter, but instead of going straight to the fire academy after high school he got a college degree and now works for Federal Express. Sept. 11 made him rethink his career path.

“It inspired me to pursue my dream,” said Reitenbach, 30, of south Fort Myers.

Local fire chiefs are relieved to see the interest.

The Lehigh Acres Fire District needs four firefighters next year and then has budgeted to hire three every year after for the next five years. The South Trail Fire District plans to hire three firefighters in the next six months.

There’s no one reason for the recent attraction to the job, according to fire chiefs and instructors at the fire academies.

“People see firefighting as a respectable and honorable calling,” McEvoy said. “They want to get involved with their community and help.”

George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters, said the economy may also play a role in the increase.

“It’s a job where somebody with a high school diploma has opportunities,” Burke said. “If you work hard and study hard, you can work your way up the department.”

In Southwest Florida a fire chief can earn as much as $100,000.

Starting annual pay for firefighters without EMT training ranges from the upper $20,000s to the low $30,000s.

Locally there’s been a big push to recruit firefighters, Juntikka said.

“We’re advertising,” Juntikka said. “We’ve made sure the cooperative can easily be found on the Internet and we’ve put ads in industry magazines that people who want to be firefighters may see.”

He’s had inquires from as far away as England and Germany.

Nobody keeps national or statewide statistics about how many people are training to become firefighters.

But the International Association of Firefighters and officials at the State Fire Marshal’s office say the need for firefighters is great.

Local fire chiefs cite three reasons for the need: Growth, new staffing requirements and hundreds of retirements expected across the state over the next two years.

Lee County’s population increased by more than 100,000 in the 1990s to more than 440,000 — making the county one of the fastest growing in the country, according to 2000 census figures.

That means more firefighters are needed and new stations are being built to serve the growing areas, according to Fort Myers Fire Department Chief Richard Chappelle.

“We want to build a Sun City station on Treeline Boulevard,” Chappelle said.

In August, Estero firefighters showed off a new $1.2 million station on U.S. 41.

Three fire trucks and four firefighters will be stationed in the 5,700-square-foot fire house during each 24-hour shift, Capt. Dale Reisen said.

A similar station opened in February on Three Oaks Parkway Extension. A third station will open by December or January just off Corkscrew Road by Pine Woods Elementary School, Reisen said.

The new stations are needed to serve a growing population, which currently includes about 14,000 people within the Estero fire district.

“It’s not just these districts,” Chappelle said. “All over, new stations are having to be built.”

Although class won’t be over for a few more days, Reitenbach already has a job offer from the Fort Myers Fire Department — providing he passes the final tests.

“I know I made the right decision,” he said.