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Credentials give prospective firefighters an edge in finding jobs

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Coeur d’Alene Fire Department Captain Bill Deruyter helps train prospective firefighters at North Idaho College. 

Photo: NIC 

​It takes a unique person to become a firefighter.

It’s a dangerous career that’s physically demanding and requires a huge dedication of time and persistence. Bill Deruyter, captain of the fire department at Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, described it as fast-paced, dirty and hot.

“And it’s the best job in the world,” said Deruyter, who has been at it for 22 years. “Being a firefighter is the most rewarding job out there. Every day is different, and you make a difference in people’s lives. You train constantly, meet great people, serve a as a role model for children, enjoy working closely with coworkers and are given many educational opportunities.”

Deruyter said he shakes his head sometimes when he thinks about where his career path almost led him. He wishes he could say he always dreamed of becoming a firefighter. He initially wanted to be a draftsman and was taking classes at a community college in Washington working toward a degree in drafting.

“One day, my instructor was late to class because he was a volunteer firefighter,” Deruyter said. “A light bulb went off and I suddenly realized I could not sit at a draft table eight to 10 hours a day for the rest of my life.”

A challenging road

Like many others, Deruyter’s journey to becoming a firefighter wasn’t easy. He was 19 when he became a volunteer, testing for six years before he was hired by the fire department in Hayden, Idaho, in 1996. He joined the Coeur d’Alene team in 2004 and said he plans to retire there.

Deruyter’s path isn’t uncommon. Most firefighters serve as volunteers for years before earning a paid position. Local departments undergo a testing process that includes a written exam, physical agility test and an oral presentation before a board. Only those who place at the top of the written test—usually only the top 10 percent—move on.

Even after successfully completing tests, applicants aren’t automatically hired. Instead, they enter a pool that can be tapped when positions open.

Although the jobs are a challenge to get, they are in high demand. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, firefighter positions in North Idaho are expected to increase 26 percent by 2018. Because the process for getting hired is so competitive, having a certification and knowledge in the field gives prospective firefighters an advantage over other applicants, Deruyter said.

That demand is what prompted the creation of the North Idaho College (NIC) Fire Fighter I Academy, which is a partnership among the NIC Workforce Training Center, the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department, Northern Lakes Fire Protection District and Kootenai County Fire and Rescue. It began about a year ago and has produced firefighters who now hold certifications through the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC).

Led by Deruyter and taught by local firefighters, the academy offers hands-on training in safety and health, personal protective equipment, rescue and extrication, ventilation, fire detection, CPR, protecting fire scene evidence and hazardous materials. In an industry with very competitive hiring processes, the academy prepares new students as well as current professionals—both volunteer and paid firefighters—for IFSAC certification that will give them an advantage over those without certifications.

“The certification is a prerequisite for employment with many departments,” Deruyter said. “It enhances an applicant’s resume. It shows initiative and the desire to actually do the job of being a firefighter.”

Meeting a demand

The increase in demand for highly trained firefighters is not limited to Idaho. The federal government expect jobs for firefighters to grow faster through 2018 than the average for other all careers, according to the College Board. The population growth in cities has increased the need for their services.

The average yearly salary of firefighters in 2009 was $47,270, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Firefighters often receive overtime pay because of the job’s unusual hours, and the benefits—including retirement—are excellent. Moving up the ranks also means salary increases.

Community colleges credential 80 percent of first responders, which include firefighters, law enforcement officials and EMTs, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that there were about 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. in 2010. Of that number, 335,150—or 30 percent—were career firefighters, with the remainder being volunteers.

The number of firefighters making the job a professional career has been increasing. Since 1986, the number of career firefighters in the U.S. has gone up from 237,500 in 1986, to 335,150 in 2010—an increase of 41 percent, according to NFPA.

Despite those figures, some areas of the country—particularly rural areas—have seen a drop in firefighters, especially in volunteers, which many smaller communities depend on. In 2010, the number of volunteer firefighters decreased by 5.5 percent mainly because of the drop in volunteers at communities with populations less than 2,500, according to NFPA.

Incentives to volunteer

Local, state and federal officials have noticed the trend and are partnering with community colleges to offer incentives to encourage more residents to become volunteer firefighters. In New York, Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), Oneida County and the Oneida County Volunteer Firemen's Advisory Board have partnered to offer a tuition support program, which funds volunteer firefighters' college studies at MVCC. The goal is to train 10 new firefighters a year through the program.

The three-year pilot program that started in August 2010 allows firefighters to pursue any program of study offered by MVCC, with coverage for full tuition and fees totaling up to $5,000 annually (minus financial aid). In return for tuition reimbursement, participants must commit to at least three years' service as county volunteer firefighters.

Other two-year colleges are offering similar discounts and waivers. In Pennsylvania, Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC) created tuition waiver programs for volunteer firefighters in the county. One program is offered to incumbent firefighters with one or more years of service, while the other program is available to new volunteer firefighters. The waivers apply to WCCC credit programs only.

Also in Pennsylvania, the Community College of Allegheny County is offering full scholarships to residents who commit to serve with a volunteer fire department for at least five years. Through a partnership between the college and the county, more than 100 county residents have participated in the FireVEST program since January 2009.

In New York, students who serve as volunteer firefighters may be eligible to attend Rockland Community College (RCC) tuition-free, thanks to a federal grant called SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response). Student can study part-time or full-time, and can enroll in any classes, not just fire science.

“Many students need to work while attending college in order to pay for tuition. This program is designed to let them volunteer as a firefighter instead,” said Mike Kramar, president of the Hillcrest Fire Company, No. 1, and treasurer of the Committee to Promote Volunteerism in Rockland County Emergency Services, which administers the grant at RCC.

Upon leaving RCC, participating student must volunteer as a firefighter in the county one year for each semester of tuition reimbursement. Depending on the fire department and duties assigned, that can be between two and 20 hours a week.

The Firemen's Association of New York State also recently launched a higher education learning plan to make volunteering more attractive. It reimburses any volunteer firefighter in the state who takes classes at a community college up to a maximum of 80 credit hours—the equivalent of an associate degree.

Hudson is the public information coordinator at North Idaho College. Community College Times​ Editor Matthew Dembicki contributed to this article.

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