Where there’s smoke will there be fire-fighters?

The new recruits, from left to right Capt. Nick Costello, Recruit Brian Stringer, Recruit Ken White, Recruit Colin Prescott, Recruit Chris Martineau, Recruit Mike Provencher, and Lieut. Brad Newbury.

The new recruits, from left to right Capt. Nick Costello, Recruit Brian Stringer, Recruit Ken White, Recruit Colin Prescott, Recruit Chris Martineau, Recruit Mike Provencher, and Lieut. Brad Newbury. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Colin Prescott makes sure his mask is sealed before going inside the fire building.

Colin Prescott makes sure his mask is sealed before going inside the fire building. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Recruit Ken White takes a drink after the live fire training during the 90 degree heat outside.

Recruit Ken White takes a drink after the live fire training during the 90 degree heat outside. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Recruit Brian Stringer, Ken White, and Colin Prescott load hose for the new live fire evaluation.

Recruit Brian Stringer, Ken White, and Colin Prescott load hose for the new live fire evaluation. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Chris Martineau enters the building with the hose line to find the fire to extinguish.

Chris Martineau enters the building with the hose line to find the fire to extinguish. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Brian Stringer masks up with his crew to enter the fire building.

Brian Stringer masks up with his crew to enter the fire building. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Fire Lt. Brad Newbury cools down with a fire hose during the 90-degree heat.

Fire Lt. Brad Newbury cools down with a fire hose during the 90-degree heat. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

A group of five Concord fire recruits discusses tactics and procedures after a training exercise on Old Turnpike Road last week.

A group of five Concord fire recruits discusses tactics and procedures after a training exercise on Old Turnpike Road last week. JAY HEATH / Courtesy

Colin Prescott pulls the hose line after fighting the fire.

Colin Prescott pulls the hose line after fighting the fire. JAY HEATH—Courtesy

Capt. Nick Costello adds wooden pallets to start the live fire training

Capt. Nick Costello adds wooden pallets to start the live fire training JAY HEATH—Courtesy

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 06-27-2024 4:32 PM

Modified: 06-29-2024 3:59 PM


While you were lounging in the shade to avoid last week’s heat wave, a handful of heavily dressed men spent hours working in front of a roaring blaze, a mix of excitement, danger and discomfort that is a perfect example of both the draw and the drawback of being a firefighter.

“It’s such a unique job, it’s fantastic. But it’s not for everybody,” said Mark Hebert, Concord Fire Department deputy chief.

The five recruits were doing training at a live burn, fighting a fire inside a shipping container, at the city’s training facility on Old Turnpike Road as they prepared to join the Concord department. It was part of a three-week recruit school that covered everything from firefighting strategies to using stair chairs to carry sick or injured people out of buildings.

The class started as early as 6:30 a.m. to dodge the worst of the heat. The department uses an algorithm to determine when things get dangerous – for example, working in direct sunlight added 10 degrees to the actual temperature, as did wearing the heavy protective clothing known as turnout gear. “If that number gets to 105, we don’t train,” said Hebert.

Sounds miserable but in the firefighting world, it’s routine. Similar training takes place all over the state, including the state Fire Academy on Smokey Bear Boulevard in Concord, and has been done for years. These days there’s added pressure, however, as the fire/EMS world struggles to keep staffing levels up.

It takes a certain type of person to be a firefighter: a Type A personality who is ready to face danger at a moment’s notice, to deal with other people’s pain and occasionally gruesome death, to fit into a strict hierarchy within a small group that lives and works together, to strictly follow orders, and cope with a lot of boredom during 24-hour shifts at the fire station awaiting calls. There are many similarities to being in the military as part of a small squad.

Changes in demographics and lifestyles, combined with increasing demands for training and a change from usually fighting fires to usually responding to medical emergencies – Concord Fire is only hiring EMTs and paramedics as firefighters these days – has made it harder to lure people into the profession. Things have been made more complicated first by COVID-19 changes and then by news about the prevalence of cancer-causing PFAS in firefighting gear.

Nationally, more than a quarter of firefighters are baby boomers facing retirement, an issue that hits home in New Hampshire facing the “silver tsunami” of seniors. The problem is worse at rural departments that depend on volunteers and on-call staff but even paid city departments have issues.

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“When I was hired, there’d be a ton of people applying for jobs. Now it’s not like that,” said Hebert, 53, a paramedic who has been with Concord Fire for a quarter century. “I’ve done recruiting events – Loudon, Nashua, Manchester, they were all facing the same problems.”

Among the city’s shortfalls right now are paramedics. Each of the stations has four of them who cycle through the 24-hour shifts but the department wants five.

The state has taken notice. It has used COVID-era funds and other federal and state money to train departments on how to do better recruitment, to create an incentive program that pays employers to let their workers become on-call EMTs, reimbursed students for courses at community colleges and the New Hampshire Fire Academy and increased the number of Candidate Physical Ability Tests, which must be passed to have a career as a full-time fire service personnel. The state also created a full-time EMS Recruitment and Retention Coordinator.

The obvious way to lure staff is through pay, of course.

Concord pays basic firefighter EMTs’ $25.23 an hour, while advanced EMT’s get $26.52 and paramedics $27.86. The schedule of 24 hours on and 48 hours off translates to a 42-hour workweek or slightly over $60,000 annual salary for paramedics. That doesn’t include overtime, which can add up if positions remain unfilled. That’s good for the individual pocketbook but bad for staff burnout.

Full-time firefighters have medical benefits, which is important in this job, and are eligible for retirement after 25 years once they’re at least 50 years old. This is better than most professions but Hebert noted that it’s hard to lure youngsters in their 20s with talk about what will happen if they stay with the same employer for three decades.

More subtle changes include increased recognition of mental stress and PTSD with a resulting need for therapy and changing the culture to be more accepting – not always easy with Type A personalities.

“When I started there were guys who would never talk to you because you’re a new guy. We don’t have that anymore,” he said.

Diversity is also a goal, although a difficult one. Concord currently has just three women “on the floor” as active firefighters out of the 84 positions in the city’s four fire stations, Hebert said. There are also eight dispatchers and 10 people at headquarters for a head count of 104.

Hebert said the city works to get more women in the field and has had as many as five. Strength and size isn’t the obstacle for women that you might suspect, he said. “Brute strength isn’t enough. It’s physical, but you have to know how to use it.”

Hebert said the best recruitment tool is current firefighters – that’s why so many stations hold open houses these days – to convey the reality and rewards of the position.

“This is a dangerous job, people know that. There’s risk involved. It’s not an easy job,” he said. “But it’s a fantastic job. … There’s really nothing like it.”