By Jim Spengler, MTI Contributor
Fire departments in the United States are experiencing significant personnel shortages. Call volume and workload continues to increase year over year in many localities. In tandem to the increase, jurisdictions are struggling to retain firefighters, placing more stress on operational members. Hiring processes that historically would bring thousands of applicants, struggle to fill a complete eligibility list. Larger socioeconomic trends undoubtedly have an impact. On a smaller scale, departments are failing to make common sense, employee-centered changes. Firefighters experiencing the regular beat down each shift are opting to leave the fire service, rather than continue to risk their physical and mental health.
During a 2022 national conference, a sampling of chief level leadership stated, “career, volunteer, and paid departments are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters. (1)” Specifically why people choose to leave was not clearly addressed. Since 2015, departments nationwide have experienced flatlining staffing levels. Per Bureau of Labor Statistics, “about 28,000 openings for firefighters are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations.” This has direct impacts on crew safety, efficacy, and service delivery. Also, volunteer firefighter numbers are undergoing a downward trend from 2015 to present. Career firefighter numbers have not increased enough to fill the gap (2). Additionally, call volume is increasing by a significant margin year over year in a majority of localities, further stressing systems. In the span of a typical firefighting career, from 2000 to present, fire department calls for service rose nationally by about sixteen million (5).
Leadership appears to believe recruitment and compensation are the problem and the solution. There is some validity to this approach. Many potential hires are disqualified due to missed paperwork deadlines, rather than outright testing deficiencies (1). In one case, this led to a 1.4% success rate in obtaining qualified potential firefighters in a large urban department (1). Shortened, streamlined and less stringent application processes assuredly boosts recruitment numbers. Increasing firefighter pay does temporarily justify increased workloads. But, firefighters continue to leave the profession despite pay raises. Other proposed fixes include investing in diversity initiatives and apprenticeship programs. Also acknowledged on the national level is the need to provide more behavioral health resources and suicide prevention programs.
Problems from the Backstep
Leadership is missing the mark in accounting for poor retention. Firefighters seem to be leaving the profession for several common reasons.
- Bad Schedules: “56 hour” scheduling is becoming the norm, used mainly as a cost saving measure for a jurisdiction. There are several permutations of the schedule, but all entail 3 rotating 24 hour shifts. In practice, it is 72 hours of work in one week. 72 hours can easily become longer with mandatory holds/forced work due to staffing shortages. A firefighter working a 56 hour workweek will be at work 10,000 hours more during a 25 year career compared to anyone working a “normal” 40 hour workweek. Inevitably this leads to more fatigue, burnout, and time away from family. A study of health care workers found that symptoms of burnout doubled when work hours exceeded 60. Interestingly, the symptoms of burnout were mediated with sleep, and exacerbated with sleep deprivation (7). Balancing work and home demands is difficult on any shift schedule, more so in firefighters. A 2015 study showed that female firefighters are three times more likely to become divorced versus the general population (3).
- Long term risks: Firefighting has always been a dangerous profession. However, the cost to benefit is becoming increasingly skewed as more research comes to the forefront. 24 hour shifts with increasing call volume year over year equates to sleep deprivation. Regular shift work is a known carcinogen (8). Also, the composition of fuels in a modern day house fire have changed over the past few decades, upping the risk. Widely used chemicals such as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) become gaseous in a structure fire and get absorbed into a firefighters’ skin. Even protective equipment such as turnout coats and pants contain PFAS. While wearing the gear, PFAS leech into the body. Cancers and endocrine disruption at higher rates than previously seen are a statistically likely result due to PFAS (9).
- Dated mental health models: Firefighters are five times more likely to experience PTSD and depression than the general population (4). Historically, there was a culture of self-medication and “just deal with it.” Admittedly, there has been a stigma associated with seeking help. In one study, 92% of firefighters said that stigma was a main reason for not seeking help (4). A study of Polish firefighters found that a higher amount of PTSD symptoms resulted in lower work satisfaction and higher readiness to quit the job (6). Prioritizing mental health in a meaningful, efficacious manner is coming to the forefront. However, mental health availability and resources are still understaffed or not widely discussed in many departments. Understandably one might rather quit than continue to deal with chronic trauma, with no mitigation structures in place
- No physical standards: Annual physical performance standards with jeopardy continue to be the exception not the norm. Overweight, out of shape firefighters are a common sight. De-conditioned firefighter’s bodies are breaking down early in their careers, leading to early retirements. Regular strength and conditioning training offsets the risks of chronic disease and musculoskeletal injury. Similarly, more motivated individuals might choose careers with more progressive departments.
The types of sea changes proposed would be a significant upfront cost. Pay raises, although welcome, do not address the root of the issue. Firefighters are quitting because they do not see the cost to their health, family, and wellbeing as a worthy sacrifice. The “do more with less” approach is no longer viable. The job will only continue to become more demanding, busy, and dangerous. Employee-facing changes will go far to ease burdens and ensure firefighter loyalty to a given department.
- Invest in shift schedule changes: Increasing the number of operational shifts from three to four would allow for a shorter work week. Inherently this would increase rest, recovery and allow for better work/life balance. Tenured firefighters might consider switching departments for the possibility of a better schedule.
- Meaningful change to health and wellness programs: Sleep deprivation is one of the most pervasive threats to firefighters. Firefighters should be instructed early in their careers on mitigation practices and consequences of lost sleep. Departments should take steps such as designing new stations to accommodate gold-standard sleep hygiene practices. Also, minimizing the effect of forever chemicals must be done. For example, gross decontamination of gear on fire scenes should be enforced. Similarly, jurisdictions should supply two sets of gear to allow for laundering once back in the firehouse. Lastly, PFAS free PPE should be mandated going forward.
- Modernize mental health resources and approaches: Mental health providers should be easily accessed and readily available. A culture of proactively dealing with trauma should be encouraged. As a parallel, crews physically decontaminate themselves and their gear after a call. Firefighters should be allowed to “emotionally decontaminate” and decompress by remaining out of service after a bad call.
- Adopt enforceable physical standards: A department with a physical standard is one that recognizes the serious ramifications of deconditioned individuals in operations. A comprehensive physical training program, with qualified coaches, is even better. More reasonably fit firefighters are less injury prone and more resilient. This could go far to reduce early retirements from chronic injury in those that are unfit.
- Focus your own sphere of control: Low morale is a toxic trait borne of complaining about what you cannot control. Some solutions to systemic problems are top-down. However, from the bottom-up, every firefighter can create an environment in the firehouse that either detracts or bolsters morale.
Jim is a career firefighter for a department in the DC metropolitan area. Jim completed a M.S. in Exercise Science in 2013.
Want to be a paid, MTI contributor? Learn more HERE.
- US Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control Executive Summary. Oct. 2022.
- US Fire Department Profile 2020. National Fire Protection Association. Sept. 2022.
- Marriage and Divorce among Firefighters in the United States. Journal of Family Issues. Haddock, et al. 2015.
- Increasing the Focus on Fire and Emergency Medical Services Behavioral Health. US Fire Administration. Dec. 2022.
- NFPA Fire Service in the United States Trends Table. March 2022.
- Post traumatic stress disorder and fire fighters’ attitude towards their job. Medycyna Pracy. Koniarek et al, 2001.
- Long working hours and burnout in health care workers: Non-linear dose-response relationship and the effect mediated by sleeping hours—A cross-sectional study. Journal of Occupational Health. Ro-Ting Lin, et al. 2021.
- Association between light at night, melatonin secretion, sleep deprivation, and the internal clock: Health impacts and mechanisms of circadian disruption. Life Sciences. Touitou, et al. 2017.
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance and cardio metabolic markers in firefighters. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Khalil, et al. 2020.