To properly staff new fire stations and make up for attrition, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue will have to hire at least 80 firefighters within the year and Boca Raton will have to hire more than 60 in the next several years, including 16 by October.
For Palm Beach County, that probably won't be difficult, judging from an overwhelming 1,000-candidate pool received after opening the application process in April.
"We had lines out the door," said Capt. Sean Pamplona. "It was a tremendous response."
Only 100 randomly selected people got interviews last week. Officials were forced to go to a lottery system because otherwise the applicant pool would have been unwieldy, Pamplona said.
"It's not something where preference or bias is involved," Pamplona said. "It's a simple, random process that is computer-generated and gives no preference to minorities or veterans."
As it has in the past when there is a need for new hires, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue had a two-day open enrollment period in April, said Deputy Chief Steve Delai.
County Fire Rescue has had large-scale hires before, Delai said, but never such a response.
Of more than 700 applications for firefighter/EMTs, roughly 300 were discarded because the applicants weren't certified, didn't pass an agility test or otherwise didn't meet qualifications. From there, fire rescue officials had a pool of 413 eligible candidates for firefighter/EMT positions that went into the lottery. A separate pool of nearly 300 firefighter/paramedic candidates has yet to be whittled.
Officials attribute the large number of applicants to a combination of factors. More people have turned to the firefighting profession since Sept. 11, 2001, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue's pay is competitive and the agency is one of a few left that still hires firefighter/EMTs, Pamplona said.
Firefighter/paramedics have more educational training, Pamplona said, and the department requires that all firefighter/EMTs hired must obtain paramedic certification within three years at the agency's cost. For Boca Raton, hiring won't be as easy because the agency hires firefighter/paramedics only.
"We are always having problems attracting qualified candidates," said Assistant Chief John Eddinger.
Typically, only 10 percent of the job candidates are hiring material, Eddinger said. Last year, Boca Raton looked for recruits while they are still in paramedic school, telling prospective candidates their applications would be accepted while they were still in school provided they get certification.
Eddinger said he also anticipates getting four firefighter positions by January if efforts to annex the Town Center mall area are successful, but he also figures he'll lose 23 people to retirement in the next three years. The agency will add 12 firefighters each year for the next four years to staff new stations that will be built to reduce response times.
"We're looking at 65 to 70 people in the next three or four years," Eddinger said. "I've never had to add two stations this quickly."
The stations will be at Powerline and Yamato roads and at Dixie Highway and Southwest 18th Street.
Eddinger said Boca's salary is competitive with other agencies, so the department rarely loses firefighters to other cities.
Starting salary for firefighter/paramedics is $42,385 in Boca Raton, $42,976 in Palm Beach County, $40,879 in Boynton Beach and $39,655 in Delray Beach. Boynton Beach has one vacancy, and officials there tentatively plan to hire 12 more firefighters if the new budget is approved. Delray Beach has no openings. "We were in a dilemma in the last year when we had 17 vacancies, but we filled them all as of July," said Acting Assistant Chief Charles Stravino of Delray Beach Fire Rescue.