Firefighting Program Aims to Help Bolster Local Recruitment
MARSHFIELD, WI (OnFocus) – Fire departments nationwide are struggling to find new hires, and Central Wisconsin is not alone. What once was a career that attracted hundreds of applicants is now a position that is hard to fill.
“The Marshfield Fire department has noticed a large decrease in the number of applicants over the past 10 years. Previously, the fire service in general hadn’t had to do much advertising,” said Erik Jonas, Deputy Chief at Marshfield Fire & Rescue (MFRD). “Further complicating the issue has been our inability to retain new employees, as many new employees over the past ten years have moved on to fire departments closer to their hometowns.”
Along with declining applicants is the evolved nature of firefighting itself. With fewer headlining fires and more medical-based services, the fire service has become an afterthought for teenagers considering their futures. There also has been a gap in student education opportunities after the elementary level is completed.
“We have a great K-6 program with fire prevention, but after 6th grade, the fire department had no exposure or contact with the students,” said Jonas.
In 8th grade, students nationwide take a career assessment and then are given a list of which careers might fit their interests and talents. When Jonas’ then eighth-grade son brought home a list of potential careers and “firefighter” wasn’t even on the list of possibilities, he knew he needed to do something for the future of the industry.
“I had a vision at that point,” he said. “Four years ago, I presented a plan to address this issue to former Chief [Scott] Owen and he granted me permission to start the process of building a program to address our lack of applicants. The focus of our plan was to recruit local people from Marshfield and the surrounding communities to apply to our fire department,” said Jonas.
The plan was modeled after other local businesses, such as H&S and A&B Process Systems, that have had success recruiting young interest through school apprenticeship programs and other initiatives.
“The real goal here is for us to hire local people, as they tend to stay in the area,” said Jonas. “This benefits not only us as a department but other departments and volunteer departments in the area.”
Jonas first reached out to Marshfield High School, Columbus High School and Mid-State Technical College.
“Together, we built a ‘pathway’ for high school juniors and seniors to earn college credits towards fire and EMS certification (The Firefighter Tech. Academy),” he explained, adding that the training provided can also be used for those interested in volunteer firefighting.
“I also have a heart for volunteer departments,” said Jonas. “With the average volunteer age being 50, it’s important to recruit young people interested in helping and provide them a way to do so.”
To further improve exposure to high school students within Central Wisconsin, Jonas and team have also partnered with the Marshfield Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MACCI) and Pathway Partners to allow for MFRD to be listed as a job shadow option for students within the area.
“This will allow for students from Marshfield and the surrounding communities to job shadow our department for up to three weeks to determine if this career is one that they would be interested in,” said Jonas.
High school students can job shadow and learn the daily routines of MFRD firefighters/paramedics and gain a basic knowledge of fire behavior, equipment/tools used to mitigate an emergency scene, and even earn college credit towards a career in firefighting through the Firefighter Technician Academy at MSTC.
Jonas hopes that the program’s success locally can inspire other departments and be adapted in other areas to help meet their staffing needs.
“My hope is to share this program with other departments within Wisconsin to improve our statewide application numbers,” said Jonas. “My vision for the program is to work together with the volunteer services, especially in our area. We currently rely on our first responders for EMS first response, and I’d like to see the MFRD first respond for fires within our neighboring communities. I’d love to see local students participate in these programs and join their local volunteer fire departments, while working towards the goal of becoming a professional firefighter / Paramedic, if they choose to do so.”
For more information about this program, contact Erik Jonas at 715-486-2094.
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