Sunday, March 3, 2024

Maryland, My Maryland

Baltimore Banner, Fire departments struggling to recruit as job’s stresses outweigh rewards

The central Maryland fire department, like others around the state, is experiencing unprecedented strain. The force has shrunk to fewer than 1,000 uniformed members spread out across 45 stations, leaving about 80 vacant, budgeted positions left to fill.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, they might have had 3,000 to 5,000 interested applicants fight over those spots. But from May to November, just about 1,400 applied. And of those, only 39 applicants were selected to advance to the fire academy after an intense screening process that involves a background check, a physical and mental exam and written test.

Now the county fire department has about 20 open slots a shift, which must be filled, without exception, every day. That’s an average of 40 people called in daily to work mandatory 12-hour overtime shifts. And that means less time off the clock, less sleep and more county money spent plugging holes.

It’s not just Prince George’s County. Interest in fire service is waning in Maryland as more workers seek higher-paying and less stressful jobs. Though the situation has not yet reached a full crisis pitch, the numbers have caught the attention of Maryland lawmakers, lobbyists and policymakers who are scrambling to stop the bleeding.

Statewide, applications for spots in fire academy programs have dropped considerably over the last four decades, but retirement rates surged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and recruitment and hiring have yet to catch up, said Dominic Butchko, associate policy director at the Maryland Association of Counties, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s local jurisdictions.

Across the state, emergency response times are “creeping up,” according to MACo.

There’s no one reason why fire service has become a harder sell, but a perfect storm of factors has brewed furiously over the last few years, powering something of an emergency among those we depend on to handle them.

In Prince George’s County, job recruiters say the rise of remote work — a benefit never afforded to firefighters — has cut into their labor pool, as have higher-paying private sector jobs that may not require as much physical demand. Many candidates, they said, can’t afford the sacrifices required by fire service.

“We compete with travel jobs, IT, work from home: COVID exposed that, all day,” said Kirk Spencer, a firefighter and medic assigned as the Fire/EMS Department recruiter. “This is: show up, get your hands dirty. It’s cold, it’s hot and hard all the time.”
Firefighters think there’s less interest in service than when they and their predecessors joined the force — and less passion for community and volunteerism in general. And today’s youngest recruits weren’t alive during, or have no memory of, 9/11, a seminal building block in the DNA of firefighters of a certain age.

“It is a different applicant,” said Yolanda Smedley, human resources manager for the fire department. “People aren’t answering the phone. People aren’t coming dressed appropriately for the written test. Basic things.”

Maybe they need to start recruiting illegal aliens, and offering them a path to citizenship for a few years of fire service. 

The Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Country Girls ready for your digital pleasure at The Other McCain.

No comments:

Post a Comment