In the years before Gloria Clausen received her job offer to join the St. Paul Fire Department, she finished college, trained to become even stronger, and worked as an emergency medical technician.
Another incoming firefighter, Chris Claypool, stayed busy as a chief master sergeant in the Air National Guard and chose to leave active military duty after 22 years to pursue his new career.
For the 15 people scheduled to graduate from the St. Paul Fire Department academy on Friday, it’s been a long wait to get here; they passed the written and physical tests in 2018 and have been on a hiring list since. Then, there was the 14-week academy, which is always strenuous, plus there were added challenges of training in-person during the coronavirus pandemic.
Their training chief says they weathered it all, and the recruits say they’re excited to become firefighters in Minnesota’s capital city. But it’s become increasingly difficult for fire departments in Minnesota and around the U.S. to find new employees.
WITH ABSENCES DUE TO COVID, NEW STAFF ESPECIALLY NEEDED
The addition of the newest St. Paul firefighters will help ease staffing strains, but the department will still be 22 firefighters below its authorized strength of 430. The department plans to do more hiring this year.
Plus, as Minnesota has seen a growing number of coronavirus infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, more St. Paul firefighters have been sickened.
In late December, the fire department averaged 15 to 20 firefighters out of work per day due to exposure or positive tests, which is more than double what the department experienced in summer months, said Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso.
There were 17 people who couldn’t work due to testing positive for COVID-19 and an additional eight who were off as they awaited test results as of Thursday.
Seventy-seven percent of the fire department as a whole, including civilians, have been vaccinated. The updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about shortened quarantines has allowed the fire department to return almost half of the staff, who were previously out because of COVID precautions, back to full duty, Mokosso said.
APPLICANTS ALREADY DROPPING BEFORE PANDEMIC
The number of people applying to be St. Paul firefighters was already dropping before the pandemic. The last time the firefighter application process was open in St. Paul — in 2018 — there were 925 qualified applicants. That compares to 1,057 in 2014 and 2,361 in 2010, according to the department.
And there’s been a new wrinkle in hiring. Last year, St. Paul contacted 45 people who applied to become city firefighters in 2018 and passed the tests. Nearly half declined to come in for interviews, Mokosso said.
“It’s very uncharacteristic,” he said. “Usually, we might have a handful of people who have moved out of state or something has come up where they no longer want to pursue being a firefighter, EMT or paramedic.”
This time around, some made other career choices, and others found jobs at different fire departments and were happy where they’d landed, Mokosso said. The three years that passed since they applied might also be a factor, said Deputy Fire Chief Jeremie Baker.
T. John Cunningham, Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association president, has also encountered the same situation in his position as Brooklyn Park fire chief. He said it was rare in the past that someone who scored highly on their firefighting entrance exam and had the motivation to become a firefighter would later turn down an interview opportunity in what’s traditionally a competitive process.
A DIFFICULT JOB, BUT ALSO REWARDING
Cunningham sees varied reasons for the difficulties in finding new firefighters. Among them: During the pandemic, “people have had to evaluate where they want to spend their career for the next 20 to 30 years,” Cunningham said.
“We hear about the Great Resignation (the national trend of people leaving their jobs), and the challenges of getting people into any workforce,” he said. “You’re just not seeing the number of people turn out to take these civil service exams to become firefighters or cops or any type of public safety profession, and that is alarming.”
Firefighters haven’t had the option of working from home during the pandemic, which can factor into someone’s decision about whether they want to join the field, Cunningham said.
Community perceptions of law enforcement — under a microscope since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020 — also affect firefighters. Though their jobs are different, wearing a uniform and badge can open firefighters up to threats and assaults, Cunningham said.
Still, Cunningham said firefighting remains a rewarding career and, as people look for new career options, he encourages them to consider public service.
“I think we need to be as proactive as we can be in recruiting and really be out in the communities, encouraging people to come take a look and giving them a look behind the curtain, so to speak, on what a firefighter’s job is,” said Baker, who is in charge of St. Paul fire training. “We need to do a good job of promoting the positive aspects of it — that we’re out in the community helping people 130 times a day or more.”
TRAINING DURING THE PANDEMIC
The last St. Paul fire academy, with 40 people, began before the pandemic at the start of 2020, and then had to switch to a combination of online and in-person training.
This time, Baker says the department had time to plan — they tried to keep the recruits and trainers in small groups, and wore masks when they were inside.
“I am tremendously grateful and proud of these 15 men and women who have chosen to a follow a calling to public service during these uncertain times,” said Fire Chief Butch Inks.
Graduating from the academy and receiving the firefighter badge is usually a formal ceremony, attended by large groups of family and friends, but COVID precautions mean the only people in attendance this Friday will be the new firefighters and training staff. The plan is for the ceremony to be live-streamed.
The fire academy teaches a foundation “for every type of emergency we’re able to put within an academy,” Baker said. That ranges from scenarios of putting out large fires and rescuing people; training for a wide range of emergency medical situations; practicing extricating people from vehicle crashes and extinguishing car fires; and responding to hazardous materials.
PUTTING IN THE HARD WORK
When it comes to the physicality of the job, Baker says the academy gives firefighters a foundation for fitness for their entire career.
“If they don’t know how to work out, we teach them, which makes them less injury-prone,” he said.
Mastering the physical aspects of the job is a point of pride for Gloria Clausen. She was an EMT at Regions Hospital when she applied to become a St. Paul firefighter in 2018 and already physically fit, and then she spent all of that summer training to become stronger and passed the physical entrance exam.
Clausen bought a weighted vest, so it would feel like the 60 to 70 pounds of equipment that firefighters wear, and ran the stairs near the James J. Hill House a couple of times of week.
She got sandbags at home to practice for the test — applicants drag a 175-pound rescue mannequin to simulate rescuing someone. She found rolled-up carpet to carry around on her shoulder, like the 58-pound bundle of hose that applicants hoist to the fifth floor of the training tower, which would be comparable to what they’d do for a high-rise fire.
“It was a big growth year for me when I put in the work and realized that I was capable of doing something like that,” said Clausen, who was also an emergency room technician at United Hospital and continued working as a Regions EMT before joining the St. Paul department.
THEIR PATHS TO THE ACADEMY
Chris Claypool says the fire academy pushed him both mentally and physically. He’s among six veterans in the group, and served full-time in the Air Force with the Air National Guard. His last assignment was security forces manager at the 133rd Airlift Wing. He says both the military and firefighting have core values of service, which is important to him.
Fire recruit Austin Johnson wanted to following in the footsteps of his father, Doug Johnson, since he was a kid. Doug Johnson has nearly 30 years of experience between the Maplewood and St. Paul fire departments. He’s still a fire equipment operator in St. Paul.
“Being around the stations from a really young age, learning what the job is all about, made me fall in love with it,” said Austin Johnson, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Little Canada and an Air Force Reserve firefighter.
After Johnson returned from deployment to Qatar in 2020, he was hired for the St. Paul Fire Department’s BLS (Basic Life Support) 911 — the crews are emergency medical technicians who respond to low-level medical calls in St. Paul, freeing up firefighters to respond to more serious situations.
The Basic Life Support program, which fire recruit Celeste Sawyers also worked in, is a way for people who want to become St. Paul firefighters to get their foot in the door.
FROM TRACK STAR TO MOM TO FIREFIGHTER
Becoming a St. Paul firefighter has been a work-in-progress for Sawyers for the last decade, though it wasn’t a path she ever imagined for herself growing up in South Central Los Angeles. She attended the University of South Dakota, where she’d earned a track scholarship.
She moved to Minnesota, and a St. Paul firefighter who happened to see Sawyers working out at a gym about 10 years ago approached her and suggested she look into a career at the fire department. She went to an open house and thought it sounded interesting.
Sawyers was going to apply, but she didn’t when she found out she was pregnant with her daughter. The next time the application process rolled around, she was pregnant with her son.
“I think it was just meant for me to have my children first and then pursue this career,” Sawyers said. Along the way, she became certified as an EMT, worked in North Memorial’s emergency room and as a Falcon Heights firefighter before joining the St. Paul department.
MOST OF THE WORK ISN’T FIGHTING FIRES
Despite the title of “firefighter,” most of the job is not about putting out fires — it’s helping people during medical emergencies. Fire departments should get that message across in their recruiting, Cunningham suggests.
In St. Paul, where firefighters respond to all emergency medical calls, around 85 percent of their work is related to emergency medical services, Mokosso said. All firefighters in St. Paul are EMTs and some are also paramedics.
Helping people find pathways into fire departments will also be important recruiting tools, Cunningham said.
Four people in the St. Paul fire academy worked for the fire department’s Basic Life Support program, went through the fire department-hosted EMS academy or did both.
The St. Paul Fire Department holds annual EMS academies, which provide paid EMT certification and training for young adults from historically marginalized communities, Mokosso said. St. Paul plans to host another EMS academy this year.
“Recruiting has always been challenging and attracting diverse applicants even more challenging,” Mokosso said.
The current St. Paul fire academy includes two women, four people of color and four people who speak a second language, according to the department.
https://www.twincities.com/2022/01/09/st-paul-firefighters-needed-recruiting-difficult/ 15 about to become St. Paul firefighters — at a time when they’re needed more than ever and recruiting is difficult – Twin Cities