Ga. Department Preparing to Double its Force

Aug. 18--Veteran and rookie firefighters are going through the paces for a chance to fill 21 slots expected to be created this fall for the Perry Fire Department.

The positions are sought to fully staff the city's fire stations and help improve the agency's evaluations for its fire suppression system. Insurance agencies look at how well fire departments are evaluated as part of determining rates for insurance coverage.

The $1.2 million cost for the agency to double its firefighting force is expected to be generated by revenues from the fire protection utility district fee adopted by the City Council this year.

Of the 21 positions, 18 are firefighter jobs and three are battalion sergeants, who are the shift commanders for the city's two fire stations.

The agency is now conducting an assessment process, which will generate a hiring eligibility list for each of the positions.

"It will probably be late October before we get the green light to hire anybody," Fire Chief Joel Gray said. "So we're still a little ways off from the actual hiring. We're doing the assessment process right now."

The assessment process includes a physical agility test consisting of strenuous firefighting drills that must be completed in less than seven minutes and an eight-hour lab assessment that gauges how well firefighters think on their feet and work as a team, as well as interviews, a polygraph examination, and a medical, physical and drug screening done shortly before hiring.

"Basically, you just don't come in and interview to be a firefighter," Gray said.

This month, the agency conducted its physical agility test at the Guardian Centers in Perry, a 830-acre training site for first responders.

That test cut the pool of candidates from 58 to 38.

"The physical agility test usually wipes out about a third of what you're starting out with," Gray said.

The remaining candidates go on to the classroom assessment lab that looks at their ability to interact and get along with others in addition to being able to think on their feet.

Of the positions expected to be filled, the budget calls for nine rookie firefighters -- people who have no firefighting experience that the city will pay to put through fire certification school, Gray said. Certification is through the Georgia Fire Standards and Training Council.

The budget also includes the hiring of six firefighters who already are certified by the state and have been working as a firefighter. The balance of the positions are three sergeant jobs that will go to experienced firefighters with advanced state training and a minimum of six years experience, Gray said.

The assessment process allows for Perry to field candidates for the expected openings and also create a new hiring list for the department, Gray said. Successful candidates who complete the assessment with flying colors will then be eligible for hire. However, the hiring decisions will not come until the city's administration gives the OK based on revenues coming in as projected from the new fire fee.

Candidates will know whether they are on the list, but no mention will be made of an actual job until positions can be formally offered, Gray said.

The hiring eligibility lists are expected to be established by mid-September and then be in a "holding pattern," he said.

He said the process has been used by fire agencies such as those in Warner Robins and Atlanta for more than 30 years.

"What the overall process does is it slowly but surely ... is very good at (identifying) the best of the applicants," he said. "It's not like somebody walking in, sitting down for an interview and when they leave, everybody goes, 'Hey, he seems like a pretty good guy,' and you hire him. It's taking it a couple of steps beyond that."

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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