Public Safety

Expanding job duties challenge fire departments

Fighting fires only part of mission as calls for help soar

The day before the Cedar River crested in the historic flood of 2008, Cedar Rapids firefighters rescue a woman and a child June 12, 2008, along Fourth Avenue SW in a rainstorm. During the flood, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department performed more than 400 boat rescues over roughly three days. (The Gazette)
The day before the Cedar River crested in the historic flood of 2008, Cedar Rapids firefighters rescue a woman and a child June 12, 2008, along Fourth Avenue SW in a rainstorm. During the flood, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department performed more than 400 boat rescues over roughly three days. (The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Firefighters’ ever-expanding job duties are making it more difficult for some departments to recruit employees and retain ones they have.

Long gone are the days that firefighters responded only to fire calls that came in to the station. Now firefighters deal with a wide array of crises, including health emergencies, natural disasters, hazardous chemical containment and myriad rescues.

“Obviously we still have the title of firefighter and fire department, but really the number of duties has expanded, and that’s pretty much nationwide, and it’s kind of come in phases over the last couple of decades,” said Cedar Rapids interim fire Chief Greg Smith. “There’s a lot more duties than just sitting around waiting for a fire to happen.”

Those expanded duties have meant more calls.

Governing magazine reported that in 2016, the last year for which nationwide data is available, fire departments in the United States responded to 35.3 million calls — more than three times as many as in 1981, even though the U.S. population increased only 42 percent in that same period.

Meantime, the number of fires that departments responded to fell to less than half of the number in 1981, and by 2016 fires made up fewer than 4 percent of all calls to which fire departments responded, Governing reported.

“Our recruiting pamphlets for fire departments show people fighting fires in their bunker gear or pulling people out of vehicles,” Rogers, Ark., fire Chief Thomas Jenkins told Governing. “But the first thousand calls in a firefighter’s career may not involve any of those things. We save exponentially more people in emergency medical care. But we don’t do a good job educating people about what it is.”

The number of volunteer firefighters in the United States in 2011 dipped lower than it had been since the early 1980s, according to National Fire Protection Association data.

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That number has increased since then, but not at the rate that calls for help have increased — triple in past 30 years, according to the data.

Driving that dramatic increase in calls are the various types to which firefighters now respond. That has, in some places, made it more difficult for departments to find and keep firefighters.

“We have a very legitimate recruitment and retention problem for full-time fire departments. Almost every department is seeing a decrease in people testing and applying to be firefighters,” Jenkins told Governing.

Firefighters are just as likely to respond to a call for a health emergency like a heart attack or stroke as they are a fire. They also respond to spills at vehicle crashes, broken water pipes, natural gas leaks, hazardous materials and in rarer cases to bomb threats or active shooter or terrorist incidents.

Firefighters also have become more involved in responding during severe weather incidents. Smith said the Cedar Rapids Fire Department was heavily involved in emergency response during the city’s severe flooding events in 2008 and 2016. During the 2008 flood, the department performed more than 400 boat rescues over roughly three days, Smith said.

And as opioid addiction has become a more severe public health issues, firefighters have found themselves responding to those incidents as well. Many departments now carry drugs designed to help individuals experiencing a severe health issue as the result of an opioid overdose.

Most of those expanded duties require additional training, adding another strain to departments and creating another challenge to recruitment and retention. The myriad certifications required to perform those duties require ongoing education and training.

“You have all of that type of stuff that you have to make sure you plan and prep for,” Smith said.

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Other factors have made recruitment and retention challenging, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council: increased time demands, more rigorous training requirements and more two-income families whose members do not have time to serve as volunteer firefighters.

Not all departments are facing recruitment and retention challenges. In Cedar Rapids, for example, Smith said the number of individuals taking and passing the entrance examination has remained mostly steady in recent years, and the only drop in people passing likely can be attributed to newly approved and higher standards.

Smith said he believes that is partially thanks to a sort of family chain in fire departments in some Iowa communities.

“I surmise, and I don’t have any evidence to back this up, that a lot of people who test and apply to the fire department have come from fire departments where their parents are active on the volunteer fire service and got active this way,” Smith said, “and then they figured out, ‘Oh, I could make a living doing this.’”

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