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Monday, September 04, 2006

Firefighter Environment

The Firefighting Environment

The firefighting environment is a rapidly changing landscape which encompasses numerous distinct concerns. The following represent repeated themes encountered in the majority of all interviews; gateway into firefighting, increasing investment, monetary matters, facts/fallacies of firefighting and the future of firefighting.
Gateway into Firefighting
When asked "What drew you into the profession?" many firefighters began with a vague "I don't know" type of answer…however, most of them did know! Without prompting, the majority of firefighters interviewed mentioned (14 out of 16) a link in their background which provided a "gateway" into the profession. What originally appears to be an "innate desire" may more closely resemble familiarity upon closer inspection. When asked "What drew you to the profession?", a typical response would be "I've been around it. My dad was a firefighter" (J4-1-10), or "I don't know, I always wanted to be a firefighter…I went into the military for awhile…then decided to just go for it and begin training for a firefighter" (S1-2-26). The most common gateways into firefighting included a friend or family member with a background in firefighting ( 6 out of 16) or a military/law enforcement background (7 out of 16). Several firefighters had both or even multiple cases of both (5 out of 16). Those with multiple "gateways" seemed prone to describe their desire to be a firefighter as "innate". For example, when asked what drew him to the profession, one firefighter with a particularly strong multiple 'gateway' background responded by saying " I had a lot of law enforcement background in the family plus two uncles, one on each side, that were firefighters. There is also a lot of military people in the family. I guess it just seemed natural growing up" (S2-4-20/24).
Preliminary findings indicate strong satisfaction among firefighters with multiple gateways' into the profession and less satisfaction among firefighters with few/no gateways into the profession. For example, one firefighter from a construction background which reported no previous 'gateway' acquaintances described himself a "disgruntled employee" (B2-3-6/20), however, further research is needed to generalize this finding beyond the scope of this study. Additionally, specific questions regarding the 'gatekeeping' relationship would be included in future interviews.
It is hypothesized familiarity with paramilitary lingo, organizational structure, and cultural issues encountered in military circles may provide a strong foundation for the quasi-military culture associated with firefighting. Antidotal evidence supports this view. For example, when discussing mandatory fire college training, one respondent stated: "It's kind of a "boot camp" if you will. It's very disciplined, very militaristic, high failure rate, very stressful….we started with 44 people…and had 20 that graduated." (B2-3-2/5). Future research may provide greater insight into the relationship between gateway links and success/satisfaction with firefighting as a career.
Initial Investment
The level of training and initial investment required to become a firefighter has dramatically increased over the past 20 years (Appendix ). Initially viewed as secure employment for someone seeking work, firefighting has become a career requiring approximately two years or more of preparation for a limited number of jobs.
Twenty years ago little formal planning or training was needed to become a firefighter and the job was often seen as a method of securing full-time employment quickly: "I had just gotten out of the Air Force and was looking for work " (S-4-2), "Back then you just had to show up" (S-4-19), "My dad was a firefighter and when I got out of high school, I tried the construction trade…didn't have steady work…my dad always had a steady job, so I decided I'd get a steady job also" (B1-1-9/12), "Both my uncle and my cousin know I was wanting a job and they called me up…and told me, 'You know this is a good opportunity…when I started in '73 the process was different…they hired you and then sent you through training, which was six weeks…" (A4-4-12).
Firefighting is now a competitive career requiring a great deal of initial investment. When asked "What did it take for you to become a firefighter?" the youngest firefighter surveyed responded "I first went to fire academy…volunteered during training, continued training for my EMT and paramedic certification…" (S1-2-34/36). This is typical of all entry level firefighters (those with 7 or fewer years in the career). Minimal training now includes a basic firefighting course of approximately 310 hours, certification and licensure as both and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and Paramedic. Additionally, volunteer experience and specialized training is common as well as having a sponsoring agency such as a volunteer fire department or other organization.
Preliminary evidence indicates the training process may not always be fully understood or even resented by some of the firefighters, whereas others find the increased training and competitive nature of employment a source of pride. One firefighter described his entry into firefighting by saying "At first we thought it was just going to be 6 months of training and then we'd go to work and make $40 grand…didn't know it was going to take two more years of training. Really didn't understand what was involved when I got into it" (S3-4-1/3). "I didn't realize that there was quite a bit of education that goes along with the job. And especially now…it's tough. There's a lot of educational qualifications" (A34-2). Another described his training by saying, "I had a friend…interested in it and he was going to fire college in Ocala and I thought I might go with him just to see if I liked it. I ended up continuing and he didn't…He changed his mind after he went through the training" (B4-4-1). Finally, at least one firefighter indicated dissatisfaction with the amount of investment as related to the perceived benefits of the job: "You know, the amount of effort I put into this career and what I have gotten of it, I'm disappointed" (B2-3-20).
On the other hand, the increasingly competitive nature of the job appears to enhance satisfaction for some firefighters; "Like I said, I didn't know anything about it…I started in '73--it was easy to get on then…now it's pretty tough. We may have 200 applicants for one position." (A3-3-12). Further research is needed to determine if increased investment results in greater or lesser feelings of satisfaction among firefighters.
Continued Training
Firefighting requires on-going training. All firefighters interviewed indicated continuing education with mandatory in-service training requirements being the most common form on continued training (16 out of 16). Other forms of continued training include formal classwork, journals and trade magazines, vendors, Internet, and other state or federal requirements.
Continued education is viewed by some as a method of increasing employability skills for promotional criteria and by others as keeping current. Overall, the prospect of continuing education is favored by firefighters )." It takes a lot of training and you gotta be the best to ever make it to that point" (S1-7-134), but may also be viewed as a source of stress. As one firefighter said, "…constant on the job training…I've been in it for 21 years and I'm still training…" (A2-3-17/20). "They are always coming up with something new" (S3-5-20), "One tool or procedure will the THE thing, in vogue for a period of time, then all of a sudden some docs will do some more studies, and "these med's don't work anymore. Now we're gonna use THESE med's". Several years later it's "Guess what, we're gonna do away with these med's and go back and use these"…It's constantly evolving" (B3-10-12/16).
Money Matters
Money does matter to firefighters but it is not agreed upon. Most firefighters interviewed made some reference to pay, compensation, or secondary employment. The majority of firefighters interviewed indicate they work at least two jobs (9 out of 16 ) . References to other firefighters working two jobs were common, giving the impression the practice is fairly routine. Firefighters were divided on their perception of the pay and other compensation provided. Real and/or perceived disparity between effort, investment, and compensation was cited as both a point of satisfaction and dissatisfaction of firefighting. For example, one firefighter stated " the money is really good for what we do--we really are paid to sleep here…" (S3-4-10), whereas another city firefighter of 10 years replied "there are radically different pay scales and benefits and at this point I could consider myself a disgruntled employee in reference to my renumeration" (B2-3-19). This disparity is apparently unrelated to type of firefighting or length of time on the job. For example, a private wildfire contractor of 4 years described the job as "very lucrative" (S2-5-10) whereas a 29 year veteran of the State of Florida Wildfire Service replied "It's not the money…that's for sure" when asked what he found most satisfying about his job (S4-4-17). As the initial investment required to enter the firefighting profession continues to increase, issues related to the perceived benefits and compensation should be carefully considered to ensure reliable personnel and low turn-over.
Manpower/Coverage Concerns
Closely related to the issues of initial investment, training, and compensation is the issue of adequate coverage. Numerous references to increased personnel were mentioned throughout the interviews from novice to experience firefighters:
· "…we've done away with many of the towers…and not really increased air surveillance enough to make up for it…" (S4-7-14).
· "…the real problem is manpower…we run a 2 man engine and it's illegal…enough manpower, that the real problem! Every year someone is really hurt or killed and you wonder if this is why…" (S3-6-7).
· "…more job openings to bring people in…we need more people…"(S1-5-101).
· "Make it easier?…More personnel. Really and truly. ..more personnel, more people on the apparatus (A3-10-18).
· "I would like to see increased staffing. Everybody is in to downsizing and increased staffing would definetely help the safety aspect…" (A2-5-17).
· "…Unfortunately we've been asked over the years to do more with less. Our call load has gone up, our staffing has gone down" (J3-11-11).
The issue of manpower coverage is a central safety concern to many firefighters. Further complicating the issue is the use of contractual firefighters, affirmative action quotas, and over-reliance upon volunteers and/or part-time firefighters. This issue has become more prevalent as the job description and performance requirements have continued to change in recent years from primarily firefighting to emergency response, and budgetary constraints have limited the resources of many departments.

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