Firefighting appeal: Departments seek ways to draw scarce new talent into their ranks

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2023 8:47 PM

AMHERST — On social media channels in Amherst, photographs of firefighter/paramedics accompanied by narratives about them are revealing why they are working for the town, along with fun facts about their lives.

“Amherst Fire is an amazing place to work because of the people we get to work with. They keep me going,” reads the AFD Spotlight profile of Sarah Forsaith, who has been part of the department for 2½ years after stints as a call firefighter in Hatfield and Whately. The profile includes a photo of Forsaith with a canine companion.

In Northampton, a fire department partnership with Smith Vocational and Agricultural School allows student interns to get experience around the station to see how interested they are in firefighting and paramedic work.

For Easthampton Fire, approval from the City Council gave the department a chance to hold informational workshops at the senior center, the public safety complex and the 122 Pleasant St. mill building.

These are among myriad efforts area communities providing both fire and medical service are undertaking to keep staffing intact as the region and nation face a shortage of paramedics and EMTs.

To differentiate the Amherst Fire Department and show it’s a good place to be, featuring a diverse workforce and camaraderie, the spotlight series is an initiative by Fire Chief Tim Nelson, who brought the idea of using social media to Brianna Sunryd, the town’s director of communications & civic innovation.

The profiles help put a face on those who serve and create interest for those who may not see firefighter/paramedic as a career path, Nelson said.

“We just need to do a better job of telling our story,” Nelson said. “We can talk about why it’s a good thing to work for us, showcase things, and be a little more personal about this type of work.”

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“We hope it will resonate with folks,” Nelson said. “It’s about our telling a story about what they’re going to be part of.”

Nelson is also one of the subjects profiled, offering a fun fact that he played against National Football League Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana when both student athletes were in middle school.

Nelson said there are currently six vacancies in what would be a 49-member department with 95% paramedics. When the department at one time would get 30 to 40 applicants for openings, now it may see one-third that number of resumes at best.

“We’re having trouble finding folks — we’re no different,” Nelson said. “Now folks can pick and choose.”

The portraits put online, Nelson said, may also be important outreach to those already in school training to be a paramedic or an EMT basic.

“Slow but sure — I think this is going to work,” Nelson said.

Northampton Fire Chief Jon Davine said all fire departments that offer medical services are confronted by the nationwide shortage of paramedics.

“We’re struggling,” Davine said, noting that he recently hired two new firefighters, one who is already a paramedic and the other who is in paramedic school, for the 68-member department. But a retirement is expected in April and two more will follow that.

A partnership with Smith Vocational and Agricultural School allows students in the criminal justice program interested in fire services and emergency dispatching to get that training.

“They’ll ride on trucks, do time with the captains and work with the EMS chief,” Davine said.

This can spur interest. “We want to get young, enthusiastic, local kids,” Davine said.

The department also advertises in national trade journals and uses web portals like LinkedIn and Indeed. Outreach is also done to Greenfield Community College, where paramedics and EMTs are trained. Some of those students can do ride time.

“We’d love to get people interested in this,” Davine said.

Grants, outreach

Retaining and recruiting issues are seen across the state and country, said Easthampton Fire Chief Christopher Norris, though he just hired two basic EMTs who will be on city’s three paramedic ambulances, which also cover medical calls in Westhampton. They will have two years to get to the higher level of medical service based on their contracts. The department has one vacancy in the 32 full-time ranks.

Norris said he is using a three-tiered approach that includes seeking a federal grant for training, community outreach workshops and enhancing a partnership with the existing training program at GCC.

A $229,000 Assistance to Firefighters grant will cover a Hampshire Regional Training Grant, paying for 60 people to be trained to basic EMT and 10 people to be trained to paramedic level.

Norris said there is continuing fallout from the pandemic, which cut the number of people who could be accommodated in the programs.

The first-time workshops had a fair response, he said. “The goal was to better recruit and to provide information about the civil service process,” Norris said.

For the GCC paramedic program, Easthampton can offer complete ride time training, “They can get a sense of what we’d provide for people. It’s really comprehensive training,” Norris said.

Nelson notes that the idea of entering the homes of strangers to take care of them is both a rewarding aspect, and one that can bother those new to the field.

“It’s hard to get that across to folks, but by using our own folks, we can explain why they come here to work and why they stay,” Nelson said.

Amherst also pays overtime for people to go to paramedic classes when not on duty. “If you’re a basic EMT, we’ll hire you if you’re in paramedic school,” Nelson said.

Even though firefighters are not law enforcement, the stigma associated with public safety in the area makes it difficult to find good quality people.

“People just aren’t getting into public safety right now,” Nelson said.

“Cops are struggling, too,” Davine said.

Stretching coverage

Smaller departments may be facing even more challenging circumstances. In Hatfield, Fire Chief Robert Flaherty said he can’t cover every shift with paramedic level ambulances, though he is preparing a budget that would have two full-time paramedics and two full time basic EMTs, part of striving to be a full-time, around the clock medical department. For now, he is settling for 16 hours a day. He explained to the Select Board that if the town pays for training, the contract calls for a three-year commitment from those students.

Flaherty said that recently he was the only paramedic left in town with four basics EMTs, making it difficult to respond to calls. Getting to 24/7 coverage in the current climate is not an easy task, even if one can offer competitive wages, he said.

“There’s just not enough people out there. Everybody’s pining for the same paramedics and the same basics,” Flaherty said.

Nelson said even Amherst has inadequate staffing on occasion, but he is proud of those who serve.

“They know it’s going to be tough at times, but they still raise their hands and say, ‘pick me,’” Nelson said.

“The big thing is quality of life and workplace balance,” Nelson said. “You work hard when you come here, but you’re well paid. This is the best job in the world.”

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