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Recruiting 21st century firefighters

Albemarle County is growing, and that means a greater demand for emergency medical and fire-fighting services, but Battalion Chief John James says attracting enough qualified recruits is a challenge.

“Back in the 90’s when I applied for my first fire department there were 525 applicants for two positions," he recalls. "Now we barely get enough applicants to cover the positions that we need."

Richmond has also struggled to find firemen, so in the age of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, its been producing videos to attract a diverse crowd of recruits.

“I’ve been wanting to be a fire fighter since I was in college. I don’t think there’s any other job that would be better than this," says one trainee.

"You get to help people. You get to work with your hands, which is not for everybody, but for me it’s perfect,” says another.

“In my experience, having a business background, it’s pretty much a dog -eat-dog world. Everybody’s in it for themselves, and personally I just wanted to be somewhere that meant I was going to be of service,” a third recruit explains.

And Albemarle County offers videos online, showing applicants what to expect when they take a timed physical agility test.

They’ll have to wield a sledgehammer, crawl, drag a firehose, climb a ladder and a four-story tower.

"You can skip steps on the way up. You’re welcome to use the rail. On the way down you must hit every step," an examiner tells one young man. "Other than that, I’ll see you back at the bottom in just a minute or two."

Less than two minutes later he announces, “Strong work. 7:36 is your time. Congratulations on successfully passing the course. We’ll get you over here. Get you some water.”

John James says the department also provides online tutorials to help applicants beef up for the test, and they can take it more than once, but standards will not be lowered for those who can’t pass.

“The test is the test. We can’t change it, because in the real world the victim is the victim, and the equipment is the equipment you have to be able to move all of it.”

There is, however, no age limit.

“We actually had an individual who was a retired Marine who was almost 70 years old,” he says.

And candidates don’t have to be certified as emergency medical technicians, even though 80% of calls are for emergency care. Instead, those who are chosen will be trained once they’re on the payroll.

To attract more women to the department, James says there’s an emphasis on family values.

“We are a family, and we live together. We eat together. If you’re on the 24-hour shift, you’re with your work family as much as you are with your real family.”

He notes, however, that the department changed its work schedule to make maximum use of community members who are prepared to do this job without being paid. They’re not usually available Monday through Friday from nine to five, so during those hours Albemarle County hires full-time, professional firefighters, but evenings and weekends are largely staffed by volunteers.

One other factor is helping communities to fill fire department positions – federal aid. Albemarle recently landed a $7.1 million grant to hire 30 new firefighters. Officials did a final round of interviews last week and hope to extend offers this month.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief