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B-N fire departments struggle to fill their ranks

From the National Fire Protection Association
From the National Fire Protection Association

Shortages of nurses, McLean County jail workers, and police officers are well known. The looming national shortage of firefighters is less known, but no less significant. That is true in Bloomington-Normal, too.

The fire department in the Town of Normal is down 25% from a full roster of firefighters — by 16 of 63 firefighters. Administration, prevention workers, and other staff bring the department to 70 people. The Bloomington Fire department is down 9% — by 11 out of the full complement of 119 firefighters. That's a total of 27 firefighter-paramedics for both departments.

Normal Fire Chief Mick Humer said when they are shy a body or two, the department asks for volunteers to take an empty shift for overtime pay. Starting about a year ago, he said the department began to have so many overtime shifts they needed to impose mandatory overtime on a weekly basis.

This is symptomatic of a longer-term issue. Bloomington Fire Chief Eric West said the problem could get worse.

"Our average age is in the mid-to-low 40s. We have a list of about 20 guys who could retire in the next two, three years," said West.

Bloomington Fire Chief Eric West
Charlie Schlenker
Bloomington Fire Chief Eric West

The Normal Fire Department has a similar demographic bulge. That's because the town opened a third fire station in 1999 and hired 19 people to staff it. Those firefighters are all nearing retirement age, said Humer.

The situation is harder for Bloomington and Normal than for many departments because the Twin City agencies require everyone to be a paramedic as well as a firefighter.

"We have a unique situation compared to at Champaign, Springfield, and Peoria. Bloomington and Normal are the only ones in central Illinois that have a transporting ambulance," said West.

The paramedic requirement began in 2006 when Lifeline Ambulance Service shut down and the municipalities picked it up.

"At that time, we didn't see there would be a problem like we have right now," said West. "There were plenty of paramedics that wanted to be firefighters. We were still getting pools of 80-90 people. The quality was good."

In contrast, the latest testing list for the BFD had seven people after testing, and West said not everybody on the list has a paramedic license, though those that don't are in process of earning one. Normal has seen a similar drop in applicants.

Bloomington and Normal are not the only ones struggling to find recruits.

"It's not in any one pocket. It's not in any one place. It is definitely across the board. There has been some data that has shown the decrease is getting to at least 20-30% less that we can attract into the fire service," said Patrick Morrison, chief of field services for the International Association of Firefighters that represents 330,000 firefighters in the U.S. and Canada.

Normal Fire Chief Mick Humer
Charlie Schlenker
Normal Fire Chief Mick Humer

Volunteer fire departments had the problem first, perhaps 10-15 years ago, which is now compounding the problem at professional departments, confirmed Morrison.

"In some cases, the volunteers are sort of the farm system for the career. You become a volunteer. You like it. You enjoy it. And you want to go on to become a career firefighter," he said.

What's behind the shortage

There are several reasons for the nationwide shortage. In some parts of the country, pay and benefits are an issue. That's less true in Bloomington-Normal, said Humer and West. Some of it is a pipeline issue because paramedic and EMT classes shut down during the pandemic. Other factors such as the nationwide nursing shortage divert people who might have become paramedics in the past.

"A lot of people have chosen that path because it gives you other opportunities than the fire service. You can be an RN and work well into your 70s in different parts of patient care that may not even be hands-on. A lot is administrative," said Humer.

There's also COVID burnout, as there is in many health-related professions.

"I think the pandemic was something that put things on the front burner for some people as far as thinking about retirement," said Humer.

The national workforce is shrinking as the baby boomer generation cycles out.

Humer said people have changed from a couple decades ago, when a 25-year career and a pension looked attractive enough to overcome the 24 hours-on/48 hours-off shift requirements.

"Now, people really value their time off, their weekends and things like that. These are things we are trying to address and work through. It's just a different workforce out there right now," said Humer.

Patrick Morrison of the IAFF agreed.

"Compassion fatigue, the number of hours; this takes an awful toll not only on the firefighter and the system, but on the family, not being able to have that connection with the family," he said.

Numerous studies over decades have shown firefighting is one of the most trusted occupations, but the workforce is shrinking and employment is changing.

"It is a tight job market. There are a lot of different jobs people can get out of high school or go to college for. Some can make a lot more money. You are not going to get rich being a firefighter or a paramedic. You are doing it because of the love of the job and community service," said Morrison. "You can't tele-work firefighting, unfortunately. You have to show up every day for the job. It's not as attractive as it has been before. Our job is dangerous."

The physical requirements of the job are tougher than they were a couple decades ago, added Humer and West. Firefighters face a more rigorous agility test. They have to haul more equipment. Humer said it's simply a tougher job.

"These guys are much busier training, much busier with calls. The Normal Fire Department ran about 8,400 calls last year. When I came here 16 years ago it was under 5,000," he said.

There's also more turnover among young firefighters, thanks to a law change a decade ago that allows transfers to another department with portable accumulated pension credit. Both West and Humer said their departments have lost mid-career people who moved to be closer to family, sometimes even at a pay cut.

What to do about it

To get more qualified people on the hiring lists, the Normal Fire Department has dropped the prerequisite paramedic license. Chief Humer said they will train people as paramedics after they are hired.

"We are working with Heartland Community College, the McLean County area EMS system, and the two hospitals to shorten the class from 18 months to 12 months, not losing any content. It's just condensed," he said.

The BFD is working with the union on the same kind of change. West said they are talking with the union right now and will eventually go to the city council to ask for a formal change.

Using an East Peoria Fire Department study, West said that will increase training costs and it will probably end up costing about $35,000 to fully train a firefighter from scratch.

"We're probably going to do something similar to Normal. We may go a bit further and say you do not need anything. We're going to send you to a basic EMT class. We will send you to the fire academy. And we're going to send you to a paramedic class," said West.

Both fire departments have planned clawback provisions that would require a firefighter to pay back some of that training cost if they leave the department for another within two years for Normal and four for Bloomington. And chief West said the if shortage is significant enough, the city could make moves in advance of vacancies.

"We have talked about whether we need to over-hire. We feel there will be some washout through this whole process," he said. "Plus, we will have more retirements within the time it will take to get these people trained. That's something we have to talk with city administration about and see whether they are on board or not."

The dwindling national picture of fire service was a serious enough issue to prompt a meeting last year with President Biden, who convened a summit with leading fire service organizations to look at recruitment. That summit in October commissioned a study and a mandated report to be out in October of 2023.

The International Association of Firefighters is working with the labor department to try to do what trade unions have done for more than a century — an apprenticeship programto gain and train new firefighters.

"Getting them interested maybe even while they are in high school, that they can transition from high school into the fire service, to say there is an opportunity here you might not have known about, that you can come in and work with the fire departments and assist in an early start to a fire service career," said the IAFF's Morrison.

The IAFF also plans a national marketing campaign targeting volunteer firefighters and professional department opportunities.

"As being a noble job. As being something you can do to return to your community and make it safe through a job that is instrumental in so many different ways. A lot of firefighters say they didn't come to the job for the money. They came in because they wanted to help others in their time of need," said Morrison.

With that approach they hope to attract people leaving the military as recruits to a different field with the same public service ethos, he said.

Both Bloomington and Normal fire departments have new hires in the pipeline and hope to be back to full strength later this year. For instance, Normal has eight people graduating from the fire academy momentarily. Two just started at an academy. Humer said he has made six job offers for a July academy.

Even with that ongoing process of renewal, Humer and West said the recruitment issue will remain a pressing one for years to come.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.