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Summit on Fire Prevention and Control

National Roundtable Testimony: Fire Service Apprenticeship Program

Kevin Quinn, Fire Chief, Union Fire District (Rhode Island) and First Vice Chair, National Volunteer Fire Council

In my opinion, being a firefighter represents one of the most significant ways to serve a community.

Sadly, the number of people interested in becoming firefighters is declining. While we must study why this is happening, I can share with you the challenges I've seen and heard from firefighters across the country.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, there have been mass retirements in fire departments due to the COVID pandemic. A number of other factors contribute to the decline in recruitment and retention of firefighters, including civil unrest, active shooters and mass casualty events. Both career and volunteer departments are affected by this.

In order to maintain services within their communities, fire departments are requiring mandatory overtime, and they are having difficulty recruiting and retaining employees. In Minneapolis, for instance, the fire department normally receives about 2,500 applications per year, but this year, they received only 700 applications.

While there has been a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters over the past 30 years, call volume has more than tripled, primarily due to increased emergency medical calls. Increasing time demands, time-consuming training requirements and aging communities make finding and keeping new volunteers challenging.

In the fire service, we struggle to recruit and retain women and people of color. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 11.6% of career fighters were Hispanic or Latino, 8.5% were African American, and 1.3% were Asian. Women represent 11% of volunteer firefighters and 5% of career firefighters, according to the NFPA's 2022 “U.S. Fire Department Profile” report based on 2020 data.

As Dr. Moore-Merrell mentioned earlier, we are here to provide some solutions. One solution is to invest in a national apprenticeship program to address the shortage of firefighters and to make the fire service more diverse and inclusive.

A fire service apprenticeship program could mirror the Registered Apprenticeship Program and the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program administered by the Department of Labor. Fire departments can benefit from apprenticeship programs by attracting people who might not have considered the fire service originally as a career or as a way to give back to their community.

The recent grants awarded under the Apprentice Building America program are grounded in equity, job quality, sustainability and evidence-based practices. Diversity, equity and inclusion are vital to the longevity of the fire service, and these types of grants support these factors.

The fire service occupies a unique place in the American society: trusted and often welcomed. We need to do everything we can, on every level of government, to attract firefighters to serve in their communities.

Thank you for being here today.