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Unexpected positive outcomes: A case study in fire department recruitment

How Columbus (Georgia) Fire and EMS’s work with a local school district resulted in multiple benefits for the community

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While struggling with recruitment efforts, Columbus Fire Chief Salvatore Scarpa asked that his staff focus on improved recruitment efforts that went beyond simply hiring anyone who showed an interest in the department.

It’s always great when partnerships produce successful outcomes simply through the pooling of resources for a shared goal. It’s even better when these partnerships also produce unexpected outcomes that further enhance the organizations involved.

This extra benefit is exactly what occurred in the Columbus, Georgia, area, where the fire and EMS department joined forces with the local school district. Both organizations experienced several positive outcomes beyond what they had ever imagined when they first made contact.

Identifying the problem

Like so many fire departments across the country, Columbus Fire and EMS was grappling with how to find the next group of individuals to join the ranks as firefighters. Columbus Fire had done what so many fire service organizations have done in the past by taking the “Y’all come” job announcement approach. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – this mass invitation was not producing quality candidates. The department instead faced a high turnover rate in its recruit classes, letting go of an alarming 25-30% of members.

Recognizing the problem, Columbus Fire Chief Salvatore Scarpa asked that his staff focus on improved recruitment efforts that went beyond simply hiring anyone who showed an interest in the department. The chief directed his staff to look for the best and the brightest, and be selective about the newest recruits. This would also help ensure that the department was hiring members that best represented the community they serve.

Finding young adults

Chief Scarpa and other department leaders reached out to the Muscogee County School District. They knew that the school system was graduating some great young adults and that many were going into the military, as Fort Benning is in their own backyard. Interestingly, many were actually traveling to other parts of the region to find jobs. But why do so when their very own fire department was hiring for stable jobs?

So, the fire department connected with the school district and established a relationship with the regional Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) supervisor, Sheree Tovey. They discussed partnership parameters and how they could work together to form a “pipeline” of students from the high school system into the fire department.

One of the noteworthy elements of the first meeting was when Tovey shared details of a new EMT program managed by Shaw High School faculty member Shannon Weikle. Chief Scarpa was delighted to learn this, as Columbus Fire would normally be required to teach EMT during its recruit school, along with Firefighter I and II, which would last up to 10 months.

With the goal to hire great young adults and have them trained as quickly as possible, it made perfect sense to hire EMTs from the school system into the organization. This also allowed fire department members to spend some time with the students at the school during this process, so they could learn more about the students before hiring.

Sharing the message

While this access allowed the fire department to learn more about the students, it also gave members a chance to promote their own organization. Members were able to message to students that Columbus Fire is looking for firefighters and that it wants to hire EMTs looking to become firefighters. Messaging focused on the facts: There are local jobs available, and the department will train them, with benefits, such as insurance and a pension, all while getting paid. It’s a win-win for the department and the students.

As Chief Scarpa stated, “What started as a pipeline to get people into their system has developed into a mentorship program where the department is able to get members into the school and work with students to guide them into becoming a firefighter with their own community.”

As this program grew at Shaw High School, other schools quickly learned of the opportunity and wanted to join forces. As such, the program has now expanded across the district, so firefighters are able to recruit students from a wider area.

An unexpected treasure

The partnership was just becoming an established program within the school district when Tovey introduced Chief Scarpa to two faculty members who oversee the school’s video-film department. Columbus Fire needed a promotional video, so Chief Scarpa sought help from the school.

The idea was met with open arms and created a unique project for the students. Five students from Shaw’s Audio Video TV and Film (AVTF) Department worked on the project. They first met with fire department members to develop a game plan and then put together story boards to promote everything that Columbus Fire and EMS does.

A presentation was made to fire department senior staff for comments and approval before filming began, but the overall project was student-driven. One of the deputy chiefs performed the voiceover for the video, and a high school teacher helped create a Spanish-language version. This was important to reach multiple groups within the community to enhance inclusion and diversity within the department. Also, this was an opportunity for the AVTF students to shine, showing the phenomenal work that they can produce.

With an outstanding video created, the department needed to share it with the community. The first promotional spot was on the school network within the school district, so all students would have access. The video was then posted on several fire department and school social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Next was the local TV station, which also generated interest.

The city manager was thrilled to see how resourceful the two groups had been in developing the video in such a short period of time. And firefighters were excited to see their department promoted to the community, highlighting their work.

As the program expanded, the project was submitted for an award from SkillsUSA, a partnership among students, teachers and industry leaders to foster a skilled workforce. The video won a SkillsUSA award, which was presented at a luncheon hosted by Chief Scarpa and Columbus Fire and EMS. This was a huge boost to the students and their work.

Job fair and beyond

Tovey and her staff host a job fair at the school every year and reached out to Chief Scarpa for a few department members to help with mock interviews for the fire department. This was an enormous success and has expanded to other schools.

Further, the event now includes an opportunity to practice the fire department’s physical ability test weeks before the hiring process begins. Potential applicants come to scheduled training sessions where they are exposed to the physical demands of becoming a firefighter. They are shown the requirements of the physical ability test and how to perform each job-related task, and are given time to practice. This ensures they are more prepared when they come to the hiring exam.

Another area that has evolved is a mentorship program between firefighters and those students who seek a career in the fire service. A battalion chief within the organization has developed an entire program that starts externally, in recruiting and mentoring new firefighter candidates, then shifts internally, as senior department members guide young firefighters during those first few years on the job. There is even an element for those who do not want to serve as a firefighter but do want to work for the department in a staff or support position.

Unexpected outcomes

Partnerships are undeniably a good thing for any organization, but when they produce so many unexpected and positive outcomes, it is a great thing!

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.