As in other essential fields, we’re running low on firefighters. Erik Johnson of the Guadalupe County (Texas) Firefighters Association recently told KSAT News, “Across the board, we are seeing a shortage nationally of volunteer firefighters.” Roughly 70% of fire departments nationwide are volunteer-based, and part of the pipeline that feeds career fire departments as well. Understaffing there tends to indicate shortages to come throughout the fire service.
Fortunately, a shift away from “death by powerpoint” and toward simulation training can help reduce this trend.
Firefighter Shortage: A New Generation vs. Old Training
There is some argument that Millennials are simply a poor fit for the fire service. Time constraints are a major factor, Johnson told KSAT. “To be a firefighter takes a lot of training, as well, so being able to have time to do that.”
The Salt Lake Tribune has noted similar tends. The Unified Fire Authority (UFA—Utah’s largest fire agency) saw a 70% drop in recruitment numbers over the last decade. Simultaneously, as is the case in many areas with fast-growing cities, workloads have increased. UFA spokesman Matthew McFarland saw this as, fundamentally, a result of changing worker preferences: “a younger generation of people want different things out of their jobs, preferring a technology-related role behind a desk to out-in-the-field, dirty work.”
But Phil Duczyminski, a 24-year fire service veteran, and training officer for the City of Novi (Michigan) Fire Department, doesn’t share this assessment of the firefighting-potential of Millennial workers. Much like other training experts, he believes some changes in how we train won’t just attract Millennial workers, but will also allow us to unlock their potential in the fire service.
Tech Savvy Fire Fighter Training Makes Tech Savvy Firefighters
Duczyminski sees pluses in encouraging more Millennials to join the fire service. “They’re technologically savvy,” Duczyminski notes, “and embrace the technology and science” that have brought transformational improvements in fire-fighting techniques over the last several years. “That’s great!
But Duczyminski agrees that there are currently fewer recruits in the pipeline, and that’s a big problem. Applicant pools in many areas down more than 80%, fewer people coming out of the training academies, and fewer applicants arrive with meaningful hands-on experience.
“Those newer recruits that you’re bringing in really have some major challenges,” Duczyminski explains. “It used to be that you’d have people who’d spent time in a volunteer organization and gotten some experience. That was how they connected with the career departments, learned about openings, and got a full-time job in the fire service. So they came in with a lot of hands-on experience garnered over those years of part-time volunteer work. Now you just don’t see that quite as much. We’re bringing in students who have very limited—if any—real-world experience. They have to go from zero to experienced, and simulation-based training is hugely beneficial for them” because it allows for much more effective training in a much shorter timeline with much lower risks.
“There are so many dangerous, but challenging–even exciting–things you face in a firetruck: wind and snow, bad traffic, bad conditions. Without a driver sim, you can’t really create many of the situations a firefighter will face while coding to a call”