As Firehouse Sees It: What Is Going On?

Aug. 16, 2021
Peter Matthews tells chiefs and others who are involved in department recruitment efforts to be upfront regarding all that's involved in today's fire service beyond fighting fires.

This summer is moving as quickly as rookies running to the rig for their first “job,” and it has been reinvigorating to get out and take part in candid conversations about what is happening at fire departments all over.

Although the topic of recruitment has been big in the volunteer fire service, both career and volunteer departments are having challenges with recruitment. It isn’t just about families being concerned about their firefighters bringing COVID-19 home to them. It’s a much deeper issue.

Within the span of a few weeks, a handful of friends and some chiefs who I visited shared stories about recruits or newer firefighters who abruptly left career departments. Several of those who left noted how EMS responses took a toll on them, whether it was being out on the ambulance for 24 hours, or engine crews who were unable to rest because of high call volumes, or the mental toll of responding to overdoses, cardiac arrests, shootings and other high-stress environments. Some shared how the lack of fires and other exciting runs straight out of the scripts for the TV show Emergency! was disappointing.

I heard of how a two-week recruit left because of the daily early starts coupled with the homework that was required after the academy wrapped up each day. One person who was a few weeks away from the conclusion of the probationary period didn’t like to be told what to do. One chief explained that one new firefighter wasn’t aware of the 24/48 shift cycle and left because that individual’s spouse didn’t like the firefighter being away at night, ending a career before it started.

Each of these instances resulted in a loss of time and money for the training that the individuals never will put to use.

Jokingly, I asked my friends and the chiefs how each of their fire departments was conducting recruitment efforts and whether they were upfront and honestly portraying the realities of today’s fire service (in their own community) during the hiring process. The answer from a few was a hesitant yes; others said they focused on fighting fires—despite the fact that for many communities fighting fires is a single-digit percentage of the actual workload.

When it comes to recruiting firefighters, are you using photographs of the “good jobs,” such as rescuing a person? That certainly will get attention, but you must set a realistic vision for recruits, including the 3 a.m. alarm resets after a cooking mishap or cleaning up a water leak. The reality is, firefighters who respond to such calls still help people on their “worst day,” even though it might not provide the excitement that new firefighters expect.

New firefighters also must be educated on mental toughness. Although veterans have seen pools of blood and mangled bodies, most recruits haven’t experienced those tragedies, and recruits must be prepared for that just as much as for the second-floor fire with entrapment at 4 a.m.

Tip of the Helmet

I would like to congratulate three chiefs who walked out of their stations with their white helmets for the last time in July and who had an effect on the fire service through the pages of Firehouse Magazine and speaking at our conferences.

Jeff Pindelski retired as fire chief from the Downers Grove, IL, Fire Department, where he served for 28 years. With ­Firehouse, he has shared his experiences on rapid intervention, leadership and tactics, which undoubtedly has saved the life of some of our readers and attendees.

Steve Prziborowski has affected the careers of firefighters around the United States, helping many to get their start through his writings and teachings on how to get hired and to prepare for promotions. Steve’s teaching continues to help fire officers to become the best that they can be through leadership development. Steve retired as a deputy chief with the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department.

Pat Kenny was honored in July after retiring earlier this year as fire chief of the Western Springs, IL, Department of Fire and Emergency Services. Pat’s fire service career spanned 38 years, and he has shared his family’s stories of struggling with mental health and loss. His new book, “Taking the Cape Off: How to Lead Through Mental Illness, Unimaginable Grief and Loss,” is a must-read resource for firefighters and officers. 

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