“Best year ever,” Chief Gary Warren said. “There’s nothing more rewarding to spend a year working on something and then at the end of the year you have something to show for it.”
The recruits join the department as the city prepares in the coming weeks to open a new $5.6 million fire station to expand services and better serve newer neighborhoods on the city’s southeast side.
A total of 121 residents applied to join the fire department in 2019, thanks in part to billboards and other advertisements the city ran to encourage people to volunteer. Of those 121, 24 graduated from the department’s new recruit class in the spring, 12 graduated in the fall, and up to 20 will graduate this May, Warren said.
“Getting 56 new people is a big boost for us,” he said.
Over a year ago, the department had about 120 firefighters. Now, it has about 165, Warren said.
“[The increase] has helped us with scheduling the day crew and night crew because there’s more people that are willing to do it,” he said.
Assistant Chief Tommy Cones said more volunteers lead to faster response times to emergencies.
Despite the jump in volunteers, the city’s efforts are not over: Going forward, the department will focus on recruiting volunteers from specific areas of the city that are underserved. The downtown and historic districts, for instance, have fewer firefighters because many who live there are older and incapable of being firefighters, Cones said.
Recruiting and maintaining firefighters is always a challenge. Many who apply fail background checks, physicals or training and do not end up graduating. Established volunteers retire, and young ones sometimes quit after they start a family. Some fail to keep up with required training and are suspended, Warren and Cones said.
“You’re always in need of volunteers,” Cones said. “It’s always a balancing act. It’s very demanding.”
But active volunteers who live on the southeast side of the city have something to look forward to: In the coming weeks, the department will open Fire Station No. 6 at 7505 South Shore Blvd. The three-story station has several amenities the city’s other five stations do not.
The station will have technology that will allow paramedics and firefighters to listen to calls that pertain only to them. This will prevent firefighters who sleep at the station from being woken up in their dorms during each paramedic call. Eventually, the technology will be introduced to each station, Warren said.
Fire Station No. 6 will also have a fire pole to allow firefighters on the third floor to quickly reach the truck bay and respond to a call. The station includes offices, study rooms, a living room and kitchen, a patio, and several bathrooms and showers.
For several months, Fire Station No. 6 has been temporarily housed at a water tower along South Shore Boulevard farther north from the new station. The tower is cramped and barely has room to park a fire truck. Warren and Cones are excited for firefighters assigned there to soon have a real station to work from.
“I really can’t wait for the firefighters to move in because they really deserve it,” Warren said. “They’ll finally have something to call their own.”