Before the time when calendars of barely clad firefighters became the fad, firefighting was seen as a great career in the African-American community. It was, and still is, a career that offered stability, upward mobility and the ability to provide an above average lifestyle for a family of four or more.
Somehow during the past 10 to 20 years, the career has lost it’s luster in the African-American community with the number of people of color in the profession dwindling to almost none.
“For some reason our kids are just not wanting to do the job,” said Chief Tavis Leake of the Sedgwick County Fire Department. Leake, who has 25 years in the Department, was promoted to the head of the Sedgwick County Department two years ago. He’s been aggressively working to diversify his workforce ever since.
Between the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County Fire Departments, there are currently fewer than a dozen African-American firefighters. That didn’t use to be the case.
The decline in the number of African-American firefighters in the City of Wichita Fire Department is something Fire Chief Ron Blackwell hopes to change. Blackwell, also an African American at the top of a department, signed WFD up to participate in a public safety job fair held last month in Wichita. More than a dozen public safety organizations from across the state participated in the job fair including: Liberal, Dodge City, Derby, Andover, Hutchinson, Bel Aire, Arkansas City, Sumner County and Newton.
The job fair was held in response to recruiting challenges facing public safety agencies across the nation as they attempt to diversify their ranks.
According to Leake, a decrease in the number of minority fire fighters coincided with a change in the minimum job qualifications. In the past, applicants were required to have their firefighters certification but they were given up to a year after they were hired to get their Emergency Medical Technician certification. In addition, departments typically reimbursed firefighters the cost of the course.
Now, new hires must already have both their fire fighter and EMT Certification.
According to Leake and Blackwell, obtaining both certifications is relatively easy. There are a variety of ways to complete the training with schedules that work with almost any schedule. The courses can be taken at several community colleges across the state; Hutchinson, Butler, Johnson County, Kansas City Kansas, Dodge City and Barton County all over fire fighter training. The class work can also be completed online.
At colleges, the Firefighter 1 class is typically equivalent to a 3-hour college course. It can be completed in one semester. Taking the class online offers even more flexibility. Searches online for EMT training produces several ways to complete that training over a weekend.
In addition, Wichita Public Schools offer a fire training program at South High School and Northeast Magnet. Under these programs, students can graduate from high school with both their fire fighter and EMT certification. After you complete the coursework, obtaining your certification requires successfully passing the test.
While the training isn’t free, it’s fairly inexpensive compared to the potential benefits. One course might cost up to $1,000. However during training, firefighters can earn $14 per hour with after training pay starting around $41,000, depending on the department.
For completing just two classes with certificates, the pay is comparable to or better than the pay earned by many four-year college graduates. Firefighting also offers an excellent upward career path and an attractive benefit package that includes a great retirement plan.
The work schedule for most departments is 24 hours on and then 48 hours off.
“After every day you work you get a weekend off,” said Leake. With that schedule, firefighters work just 10-12 days per month.
Typically departments accept applications once or twice per year. When you see the job advertised isn’t the time to start preparing. If you’re interested in being a fire fighter, you need to get your certifications out of the way in advance of the application process.
The hiring process typically includes taking a department administered test. If you pass that step and rank high enough, you’re typically called back to take an agility test.
“We lose more applicants during the physical agility tests than from the fire fighters exam,” says Leake. With the heavy gear firefighters wear, “this job is physically demanding.”
In addition, the application process includes a back ground check and a drug test. Those who make it through the process may be hired immediately or placed on a hiring eligibility lists for consideration when openings occur.
If you make it through the process and join the ranks of a department, congratulations, says Leake.
“It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.”