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Firefighter recruits shortage: could a regional exam be the solution to attract new recruits?

Published: Sep. 24, 2021 at 7:47 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Hundreds of candidates used to line up to take the firefighter exam.

But that’s changed drastically over the last few decades.

Local fire departments are struggling to hire quality firefighters-- the first responders you depend on in emergencies.

19 Investigates found some local fire departments are banding together to attract new recruits.

Lyndhurst Fire Chief Mike Carroll remembers starting out and taking his written exam about 27 years ago.

“You’d be sitting at a test with 200 people easily, 200, 300, 400 people. And that might just be for one or two jobs,” he said.

But times have changed and now many public safety departments are facing a recruiting crisis.

Fire and police departments across northeast Ohio and the country are struggling to attract new recruits.

We asked Carroll why people are not as interested in becoming firefighters anymore.

“That’s a million-dollar question,” he said.

He said the job has changed and the majority of their calls are medical emergencies.

“I think police are really struggling, more so than fire and EMS. But I think it’s a systematic problem, public safety in itself is a challenge. It could be the demands of the job. You’re away from your family for 24 hours when you’re on shift,” Carroll said.

Carroll said only 30 candidates signed up for one of the last firefighter tests Lyndhurst gave on its own.

And maybe half of those are qualified.

“So to only have 30 or 40 applicants to go through is a small pool if you’re going to hire six or eight or 10 firefighters,” Carroll said.

A postcard advertising the regional firefighter/paramedic exam.
A postcard advertising the regional firefighter/paramedic exam.(WOIO)

So suburban fire departments on the east side came up with a solution, banding together to give a regional firefighter/paramedic exam.

If you pass, you’re eligible for every department participating.

19 Investigates found their idea seems to be working. We discovered in 2015, a 2-city test between Lyndhurst and Pepper Pike fire departments brought out about 100 applicants.

By 2018, a 5-city test attracted over 200 applicants.

The cities participating included Lyndhurst, South Euclid, Pepper Pike, Highland Heights and Mayfield Heights.

And in 2020, eight cities signed on, including the five above and Mayfield Village, Euclid and Richmond Heights.

They had just over 180 applicants during the pandemic.

Carroll said it was a tough year, but their pre-Covid numbers give him hope.

“We hadn’t had over 200 applicants in probably 16, 20 years. So we really identified it could be a possible solution, we increased our candidate pool,” he said. Despite the challenges, fire departments won’t drop their hiring standards

“You want to be on you’re A game, you want the best people that you can possibly hire,” Carroll said.

“To lower the standards means you could lower the quality of service we’re providing to the community, and that’s not a safe environment for the residents or firefighters and paramedics you work alongside,” he said.

Cory Finkler is one of the newer firefighters local departments have been struggling to hire.

“Helping out people is what we got in this for, so that always feels good to do,” he said.

He said it’s still a grueling process to become a firefighter.

But the regional exam made one step a little easier.

“So I think it’s a great idea and I think it’s worked out fairly well,” he said. We also found the regional exam is saving firefighter applicants money.

They pay $50 to basically get five tests.

This saves cities and taxpayers money too.

They’re hoping to do another regional firefighter exam next spring.

If you’re wondering what the starting pay for a firefighter is in northeast Ohio, we did some digging.

19 Investigates found salaries for firefighters just starting out range from about $46,000 to $51,000 in Canton and Lorain to nearly $74,000 in Westlake. Cleveland firefighters start out at nearly $66,000.

The average pay from the 12 departments who responded to our request is about $59,000.

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