MEREDITH — Cole Boggis knew he would make his career in the fire service since he was a boy and his father was a member of the Brookline Fire Department.
“I was fortunate to grow up in the fire department in my hometown. All the guys were good enough to include me, and got me interested,” Boggis said. At 14, he joined a junior firefighter program in the neighboring town of Hollis, joined Brookline when he turned 18, and came to Meredith as an intern with the Fire Technology program at Lakes Region Community College. He’s now 21 and a member of the Meredith Department, covering the station during day shifts.
Over in Franklin, Mike Mussey has been a full-time member of the department for seven months. He’s 23 and said he’s known he wanted to be a firefighter since he was 14, also through a junior program.
Mussey grew up in Franklin, and said it’s “fantastic” to be able to serve the people of his hometown.
People like Boggis and Mussey are increasingly hard to come by, though. Fire chiefs around the region report difficulty filling their rosters. They might have once had 10, or even 20, applicants for each open position; now they have two or three, and those who are highly qualified are likely fielding multiple job offers. That’s leading some in the industry to warn that the shortage could soon become critical.
"I think everybody knows it, the total amount of firefighters that we have applying statewide, everywhere, it’s much more difficult to hire firefighters now,” said Kirk Beattie, Laconia's fire chief. “The numbers of them just aren’t out there. And if you factor in that we’re looking for paramedics as well, they are very hard to come by.”
If he were fully staffed, Beattie said he would have 40 firefighters on his roster. He currently has 38, and pending retirements will soon drop that to 36. “We are in the process of trying to hire right now, but the total number of applicants is way down,” Beattie said, though he added that, so far, he has been able to land well-qualified candidates. “It would be nice to get back to the days of having 20-30 applicants, instead of 2 or 3.”
Chief Michael Foss in Franklin said he has had to change his staffing levels for lack of firefighters. He would like to be able to have a crew of 5 on at all times, but now he has 3 firefighters for each 24-hour shift, with one additional crew member coming on for a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift. Coverage drops back to 3 for the overnight hours.
“We are set up well to handle one call at a time,” Foss said. However, about a quarter of their calls occur when the crew is already responding to a prior emergency, which leaves Franklin with a choice. Either try and call in already overworked firefighters on their day off, or rely on Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid, which will rally help from a neighboring town.
Meredith relies on on-call firefighters. It used to be, Meredith Chief Ken Jones said, that the town could handle most moderate incidents with their call firefighters, who work in town and could drop what they were doing to respond to an emergency.
“It used to be a 45-man roster years ago,” Jones said, adding that he’s down to around 15 members who will reliably show up when their pagers tone. “We’re struggling. On any call, I don’t know who I’m going to have on that call,” he said. Depending on who shows up, he might not have people trained to attack a house fire from the interior, or operate the necessary equipment.
Increasingly, Meredith has to call Mutual Fire Aid for help.
“That’s how we are surviving at this time,” Jones said.
Gilford uses a hybrid system, with 18 full-time firefighters and an equal number of on-call staff. Steve Carrier, Gilford chief, said his biggest problem is retaining personnel, especially on-call firefighters.
“It’s a pretty demanding position to be in,” said Carrier. “You have a full-time job and a family, we’re telling you that you have to come in for training two or three times a month, if you don’t have certification we tell you to go somewhere you can get certification.”
When the on-call staff drops out of rotation, Carrier said it’s usually because of the time commitment. They need to stay active in order to retain their skills, but they have to be willing to drop everything and respond when the big calls come in. “The opportunities aren’t there every day for them to be involved,” Carrier said. “I think it’s difficult for some of them to justify spending the time and training.”
Deborah Pendergast said the problem has been brewing for years. She’s director of the state’s Fire Standards and Training Department, and said the drop in interest was first seen in smaller, rural departments that rely on call staff.
“Now that is trickling to the full-time departments. It is regional, it is not a New Hampshire phenomenon. Overall, if you look at why is that, there are a couple of different things playing into that,” Pendergast said.
One of the reasons is a public perception of the service that doesn’t accurately reflect the present reality. To begin a career in the fire service, a candidate would need to get certified as a firefighter, have at least some emergency medicine certification, and a commercial drivers license.
Yet, said Pendergast, “The fire service is considered a blue-collar career, a hands-on trade.” That creates a problem. Ambitious young people who aren’t afraid of certification programs might not consider the fire service, but people who expect to be able to walk into a job might be turned off when they realize how much work it is to become a firefighter.
Then there’s another perception problem, one which Pendergast confronted herself years ago. Her career started with a CPR class, which led to an EMT program, and when she was doing a ride-along on an ambulance, one of the firefighters suggested she take a firefighting course. She was about 30 at that time, and never thought of herself as a firefighter.
That was decades ago, but the picture of a New Hampshire firefighter hasn’t changed too much.
“New Hampshire is absolutely not where it needs to be with diversity of fire service,” Pendergast said. Women make up only about 5% of firefighters in the state, she said, a figure well below other states.
“If we are only tapping the white males to be in the fire service, we are doing ourselves a disservice,” Pendergast said. She said local firehouses need to invite Girl Scouts, not just Boy Scouts, for tours. Recruiting efforts should take place at softball and field hockey tournaments, not just football games.
“If we work hard to tap minorities and females, we can get people who said, ‘I never thought of myself doing that.’”
Reversing the trend
The fire service can break through misconceptions by reviving junior firefighter programs, which were once prolific but have become rarer, Pendergast said, and by encouraging fire-science classes in high schools, which give young people a jump-start on basic training.
Beattie, in Laconia, said it will likely take a scattershot approach
“There isn’t one answer, I think there’s multiple things,” he said. He pointed to statistics that show significant decrease in active duty military service over the past 30 years – and fire service is a common second act after an honorable discharge.
Foss, in Franklin, said some of the decline could be due to changes that have affected the value proposition for someone considering the career. The barrier to entry is now higher, considering the required certifications, while the payoff is farther away. Changes to the state retirement system did away with the possibility of collecting a pension as young as 45 years old.
“The increase in age requirement to receive a benefit is a lot higher than it used to be,” Foss said.
Jones, in addition to leading Meredith’s Fire Department, is currently serving as head of the NH Association of Fire Chiefs. He said the state recently adjusted the hours required to receive basic firefighting certification by reducing the amount of time spent on wildfire training, with a particular eye at making it easier to become a call firefighter – a frequent first step on the way to a full-time career.
More will be necessary, Jones said. If his department is indicative of other call services, the forecast is troubling. Of those 12-15 call members he can rely on to respond to alarms, more than half of them are nearing retirement age.
“It’s an issue that’s not going away. Municipalities are going to need to face this and decide what’s the next step,” Jones said, offering the possibility of full-time, regionalized service, though he added that would likely result in longer response times for far-flung neighborhoods. “It’s a question that's on the horizon and will need to be answered in the near future.”
A career of helping
Mussey, beginning his career in Franklin, said he was hooked as soon as he got a look at the career through a fire explorer program. “I found that I enjoyed everything it offered,” he said. He was attracted to the hours, the camaraderie, and the mission.
“It’s got a lot to offer. You get to help people during the worst moments of their lives, you get to make connections with your co-workers that you wouldn’t make in other jobs,” Mussey said.
Boggis said that it might sound cliche, but it’s true. “I like helping people. I like to be able to interact with different walks of life, and I like being able to put my touch on people’s lives.”
Someone with decades in the service, Don Smith, a call firefighter with Meredith, said Mussey and Boggis will find a career doing just what they like to do.
Smith said he joined the Meredith department because his father and his younger brother did. Forty-six years later, what keeps him answering the call?
“I enjoy helping people,” Smith answered. “I just enjoy firefighting.”