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Internships: Opportunities for Fire Departments and Recruits Alike

Economic realities have forced hiring freezes, layoffs and fire station closures. Fire departments respond to calls with staffing levels below national standard recommendations. These cuts have affected career and combination fire departments the most, but volunteer fire departments are also struggling with staffing levels.

After two failed attempts to improve staffing levels at Mid-County Fire Protection District (FPD) in Camdenton, Mo., we developed a two-year intern program, which we implemented this past June. Our goal was to help potential employees gain experience within the fire service.

In the last eight months, we've recruited nine volunteer interns from Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Washington and California, and we've just completed Phase III of implementation, interviewing applicants for the last six openings. We found eager firefighters willing to relocate halfway across the United States for an opportunity to gain hands-on experience and advanced training opportunities toward a career in the fire service. Some intern recruits have certifications for Firefighter I and II, Hazmat Operations, Fire Apparatus Engineer, Tech Rescue, EMT-Basic and Paramedic.

The marketing plan was key to gaining more than 200 inquiries nationwide about the program; from these, we selected the best 15 individuals to become members of our organization as intern firefighters.

The program provides housing, training and hands-on experience to the new recruit firefighters. We strongly encourage the interns to enroll in a local college and pursue a degree in a related field. College students accepted to this program who are pursuing a fire-administration degree have the potential for 25% of the tuition costs to be reimbursed. To promote the pursuit of higher education in our interns, college courses and scheduled fire-certification classes are excused absences from shift.

Each intern is assigned to a shift and must have a part-time job for incidental expenses since the position isn't a paid one. The part-time employer must be flexible and accommodate scheduling around the interns' days off. This program is focused on providing as much training as possible during their two years.

While we're building top-notch recruits, we're also building a reputation as a top-notch academy that produces highly experienced, trained firefighters.

In addition, we developed a ranked list of potential hires with a proven internal work history for when a career opening occurs. If an intern receives a job offer from another department in the Tri-State Recruitment Alliance, the remaining contract time is waived and we congratulate the recruit on their new endeavor as a career firefighter.

The goal for most combination and volunteer departments is to improve staffing levels with qualified and motivated volunteers. Traditionally, once volunteers are recruited, the goal is to keep them as long as possible.

While this is the case for our local volunteer firefighters, the model for our interns is to help them become career firefighters within two years so a new intern on a waiting list can join the program. We place a top priority on providing the interns advanced training and administrative support in obtaining a job with a department within the Tri-State Recruitment Alliance.

We believe it's acceptable to provide this level of training and effort to individuals who'll dedicate a third of their time to our organization until they make it a career. This new concept in our combination fire department has dramatically improved staffing levels and increased dedicated training hours on every shift.

I've searched the internet for other departments using a similar concept to improve staffing levels, but I've found only about a dozen departments across the United States with programs centered on recruiting live-in firefighters to work assigned shifts. Some were implemented more than 20 years ago, while others like ours are relatively new. Most of the programs have improved staffing levels and lowered ISO ratings and the interns gained employment as career firefighters.

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