Historical hiring trends and 4 fire service truths

Hiring is down now, but it hasn't always been nor will it always be this way; the best-prepared candidates will win the day

Recently I have talked to many firefighter candidates who are more discouraged than ever. They feel like fire department hiring has slowed to a standstill and they will never achieve their career goal due to the state of our economy, political attitudes towards public safety, a super saturation of qualified candidates and other reasons beyond their control.

Taking a quick look at historical trends in fire-service hiring may provide both insight and optimism for those looking for a fire service career.

When World War II ended, the United States saw one of its greatest economic booms across all industries. As people gravitated more towards urban areas, suburban homes were being built at an unprecedented pace throughout the nation.

This growth in suburban areas created a demand for many jobs including paid firefighters. Areas that were previously serviced by volunteer organizations now had the need and funding for paid fire departments. Urban cities also grew, creating a demand for even more firefighters in these already well established metropolitan departments.

This combination of a strong economy and urban and suburban growth created many fire service jobs during the post war era. From 1947 to 1960, the number of paid professional firefighters grew exponentially.

If the pants fit, wear them
The growth slowed slightly during the 1960s, but there was still an ongoing demand and need that was not being met with an overwhelming supply of candidates.

Since there were no requirements or classes one could take at that time, there was often a great deal of nepotism in the hiring practices. If family or friends were not interested in the job, it was often given to whoever best fit in whatever sized turnout coat they had on hand.

I know retired firefighters who walked into a firehouse to inquire about a job and were hired on the spot because there was an opening and the coat and bunker pants fit them.

Up until the late 1960s and early 1970s, most full-time fire departments operated on a two-platoon schedule. Firefighters often worked 24 hours and then had 24 hours off.

They were not only spending half of their life at the firehouse, they were also on call on their days off. They were required to live in the city they served and often required to remain in town on their days off. In fact, it was not uncommon to have to be granted permission from the fire chief to leave town on vacation.

Three-platoon system
As labor laws improved most departments were mandated to move to the current three-platoon system. Work schedules varied, but the most common was 24 hours on and 48 hours off. This is still a very popular schedule in the South and Southeastern United States. This transition occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s in most paid fire departments throughout the country.

What this meant was that every fire department that made this move from a two-platoon system to a three-platoon system had to increase its staffing levels by 33 percent. Departments throughout the country conducted mass hirings to fill these positions.

Another reason there were so many firefighters being hired at this time was that the post-war firefighters were now nearing their retirement age. For these two reasons we saw a hiring boom again between the years of 1968 and 1976 that rivaled that of the post-war era.

Once these positions were filled, hiring returned to a slower pace and positions were filled mostly through attrition. Demand lessoned while interest grew.

This interest and popularity for the job was assisted by television shows such as "Emergency!" that glamorized the profession and brought national attention to the modern urban fire service. This increased the number of candidates looking towards the fire service as a career at a time when jobs were decreasing.

Competitive hiring
As fire departments began providing emergency medical services, new requirements for firefighters became mandated and educational programs were put into place. Requirements such as CPR, first aid, EMT and later paramedic licensure became minimum standards; many departments looked for candidates who already possessed a head start in this training.

Competition for the jobs began to increase and departments began to move away from nepotistic hiring practices to a more competitive hiring process. The trend of increasing standards and requirements continued to persist throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s making it a highly competitive process without a direct or clear educational path.

Since the career span of a firefighter is about 25 to 30 years, we saw another mass exodus of firefighters retiring in the late 1990s, which happened to coincide with another economic surge from the puffing up of the dot-com bubble.

Jobs in all fields were abundant; there was increased growth in many parts of the country, and the U.S. economy seemed to be unstoppable. For the first time in decades we saw entry-level firefighters being hired in mass numbers again.

The Great Recession
But unlike decades past, we saw an excess of qualified candidates lined up for these jobs. Despite the dot-com bubble bursting around the same time as the 9/11 attacks, this increased hiring trend lasted up until the housing and financial markets tanked and economy flopped into recession in 2006.

Since then we have returned to a slow hiring pace due to the economic downturn and cut backs in many parts of the United States. For the young candidate wanting to get hired, it is easy to get discouraged looking at the past several years and our uncertain future.

However, just like the stock market and everything else that has its ups and downs, one should try to see this downturn in hiring as only temporary. By preparing yourself now and staying committed you will set yourself up for success when things do turn around, which they inevitably will.

I am not making any timeframe predictions as to when we can expect this turn around to occur, or all the factors that will come in to play when it does, but I can tell you these four inherent truths based on the history of the fire service:

  1. There will always be the need for professional firefighters and EMS personnel.
  2. Firefighters will retire and fire service vacancies will arise.
  3. The most-qualified, best-prepared and best-suited for the job are the most likely to get hired.
  4. For those who possess the passion, firefighting will continue to be the best job in the world and well worth the wait and all the hard work one puts into it.

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