Fire departments in South Florida struggle to fill vacancies

By Thomas Monnay
Staff Writer
Posted December 2 2002

South Florida's fire-rescue departments are having a tough time recruiting new personnel as job applicants are looking for attractive salary and benefits packages, while others simply fail required background checks.

In Hallandale Beach, Battalion Chief James Johnson said filling vacancies always has been an issue in his city, which has lost firefighters to municipalities offering higher salaries and benefits.

It's actually a candidates' market out there," Johnson said. "They don't want to be in small departments because they know the upward mobility is not there."

Lt. Derek Hernandez, of the Boynton Beach Fire-Rescue Department in Palm Beach County, said his city lost about four firefighters the past few years to Fort Lauderdale.

"Our pay doesn't match what they pay down south [in Broward County]," said Hernandez, adding Boynton Beach also has done a good job luring firefighters from much smaller local departments.

Fire administrators and educators say the region's demographic boom and the conversion of fire departments into fire-rescue systems have created the need for cross-trained personnel, resulting in departments competing for the same candidates. They say the problem worsens as scores of candidates are disqualified because of felony convictions, poor driving records and sometimes minor legal problems they fail to disclose on job applications.

"It's not just South Florida, it's a statewide issue," said Graham Smart, acting director of the School of Fire and Environmental Science at Miami-Dade Community College. "A lot of people are retiring. There are a lot of people trying to get the jobs, but they need to have a good driving record and no criminal record."

Battalion Chief Richard Murphy, of Delray Beach's fire-rescue services, said his department recently hired six new members and is trying to fill 10 more positions.

Though Murphy said there is not a crisis at this time, he said it's tough recruiting new people.

"The competition among the cities is probably what's causing the problem," Murphy said. "There are hardly qualified candidates for the job."

In Davie, Fire Chief Don DiPetrillo who has been trying to fill 12 vacant positions, said, "Everybody is running with vacancies because we're drawing from the same pool of candidates."

He said that among five people he recently interviewed, two were disqualified because they had arrest records for drug charges, one pleaded no contest to riding in a stolen car and another had other legal problems.

"They're being washed out by Human Resources," he said. "We don't take chances with these kinds of people. We can have a lot of liabilities if we hire them."

Todd LeDuc, a spokesman for Broward County-Rescue, said larger departments have an edge in the competition because they offer higher salaries and better benefits.

"The challenges are not as great for larger fire departments," LeDuc said. "The larger departments are just very fortunate because of the opportunities they have to offer."

Most fire officials also say that departments hiring only firefighter-paramedics have a tougher time recruiting new personnel. They say fire academies spend at least two years training firefighter-paramedics, while the training for regular firefighters is less than one year.

"That's where the market gets really competitive," said Smart, who also said fire departments cannot afford to lower standards just to increase staffing.

Ted Martin, of Pompano's fire rescue system, said "it certainly limits your pool" when you require candidates to be certified firefighter paramedics.

Almost all South Florida departments promote recruitment efforts through job fairs on college and fire academy campuses, community outreach, advertisement in trade publications and job posting on the Internet.

Some 12 Broward County departments and a few in Palm Beach County also recruit new personnel through the Municipal Employee Screening and Hiring nonprofit organization, which provides member cities with information on recent fire academy graduates and fire professionals looking for better opportunities.

Candidates, who generally must be certified after graduating from a fire academy, must accept informal job offers so employers can consider them for employment. By doing so, they automatically authorize fire officials to investigate their background.

In an effort to maximize recruitment efforts, cities such as Pompano Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton allow their departments to recruit firefighters who aren't cross-trained as paramedics or emergency management technicians but work with them so they can acquire the additional through in-house training and additional schooling.

"We hire a paramedic who will be going to fire school," said Lt. Frank Montilli, a spokesman for the Boca Raton Fire-Rescue Department. "The whole city has to buy into the concept."

Hernandez, of Boynton Beach's Fire-Rescue, said his department conducts its own testing of candidates in hopes of speeding up the hiring process and is increasing salaries and benefits to remain competitive.

"We employ whomever is out there who's going to pass our test," Hernandez said. "We're pretty aggressive as a union. ... We are able to [offer] better contracts."

Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue runs an Explorer Program that mentors youths. Hallandale's department also has a mentoring program .

Anthony Peavy, recruiting officer and a driver-engineer with Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue, said his department recently recruited 25 new personnel, who started work Nov. 24.

While good pay and incentives have made it easier to attract new members, he said Fort Lauderdale's challenge is hiring qualified professionals who reflect the city's diversity. He said the new hires include women, African-Americans and Hispanics, and efforts are under way to tap into other minority groups such as Haitians.

"We are doing the right thing," Peavy said. "The U.S. Justice Department says the department has to reflect the population where it serves."

In Coral Springs, which uses help from 40 to 60 volunteer firefighters who assist 99 full-time fire-rescue personnel, fire officials usually draw from the pools of volunteers to fill vacancies, said Don Petito, a spokesman for Coral Springs fire-rescue.

"It's a tough market, but we are able to do it," Petito said. "We are a combination fire department. We have a volunteer squad. We hire from the volunteer corporation."