Getting Hired in a Tough Economy

Getting hired in today’s economy is extremely difficult. Many departments are still trying to figure out what their budgets are going to be. The federal and state governments are still a moving target, which means that the cities and counties are still uncertain as to their financial status.

Here is the way the budget works in California. When a product is sold the vendor charges sales tax. Depending on the city, this ranges from 8.5% to 10.5%. This money is sent to the state who takes a percentage. The remainder is sent back to the city that puts it in their general fund. The general fund then pays for essential services.

The state is now skimming a larger percentage of the revenue that is being sent by the cities and counties. In addition to skimming sales tax revenue, they are also taking a percentage of other money that the municipalities were counting on to operate their budget. In other words, the state is balancing their budget on the backs of the cities and counties. As a result, the local governments now have less money in which to pay for services.

The greatest expense to any general fund is for public safety – the police and fire department. In many cases, public safety expenditures account for roughly 75% of the general fund budget. Since ¾ of a municipality’s budget goes to police and fire, you can now understand why politicians and budget makers look to public safety to cut expenses. The unfortunate aspect from the fire department’s perspective is that for the past 10 years we have been cut. There is no “fat” in our budgets. As a general rule, most fire departments are the same size as they were 10 years ago when you look at staffing on the engine or truck companies.

While some departments may have annexed areas and grown as the municipality grew, most departments staffing ratios have remained constant. The police departments, on the other hand, have grown a great deal as a result of the nation’s desire to feel safer. If you look at the grant funding that has become available since 911, much of it has been allocated to the PD. As a result, police departments around the nation have grown, while fire department staffing has either remained the same or declined.

What does this mean to someone who is looking to get hired? To understand this we need to evaluate a couple of things. Most fire departments are seeing a reduction in their annual budget. As a result, fire chiefs are being forced to maintain (best case scenario) or reduce staffing. You will see many cities reducing staffing on engines and trucks or closing stations altogether. This has a huge impact to the safety of the remaining firefighters as well as a major impact to the community. Tragically, some firefighters have been laid off. Agencies that closed companies and have not lain off firefighters are now “overstaffed”. These firefighters are used to fill positions that may have been filled by paying firefighters overtime.

The department will remain overstaffed until additional vacancies occur. This is also a convenient way for a department to reduce overtime for the firefighters which has been a bone of contention for the politicians. For the record, it is more cost effective for a department to pay overtime to its firefighters to fill vacancies than it is to hire new firefighters, train them and pay the burdening costs of retirement, vacation, and sick leave. This is great example of political imperatives trumping financial imperatives. In other words, it’s cheaper for the city to pay overtime, but the public does not like to hear about a firefighter making thousands of dollars in overtime.

The next dimension to consider is the mindset of the firefighter who was planning to retire. With the uncertainty of the economy, many firefighters have elected to play it conservatively and ride out the recession. Many of them have lost money in their supplemental stock (deferred compensation program) that was going to be used to supplement their retirement check. Until this group retires the hiring will continue to slow down.

What can an aspiring firefighter do to get hired? You cannot control the budget and the hiring process. What you can do is control what you have done to prepare yourself so when an opportunity presents itself you are prepared. I encourage you to continue to go to school and work toward a degree. Online classes have made it much easier for working people to go back to school. An online degree has the same value as one that was earned by someone who attended classes each day. The next thing a candidate should do is to maintain a high level of physical fitness. This is an important part of the job and will be evaluated during the testing process. Candidates should continue to strive to complete a basic fire academy as this greatly enhances your resume. Upon completing a basic fire academy, enroll in a reserve or volunteer firefighter program to maintain your skills. Completing an EMT class and working as an EMT will also strengthen your resume as well as build required hours necessary for paramedic school. Lastly, if the desire is present, become a paramedic.

Getting hired in the fire service has always been very competitive. An added dimension in this economy is the shrinking size of many departments coupled with the fact that many senior members of the departments have postponed their retirement plans. Control what you can control and become the most qualified candidate that you can be so that you are ready when the opportunity presents itself.

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