- November 18, 2014
Jeff Dirling, a captain at the North River Fire District, remembered a time following 9/11 when a surge of Americans rushed to become firefighters.
Patriotism was at an all-time high and the job of being a first responder was front-and-center after the heroic efforts of firefighters at the World Trade Center in 2001.
"Everyone thought they wanted to be a firefighter," Dirling said. "The number of people trying to get into schools was overwhelming, but there were no jobs."
As time ticked off in the first decade of the 21st century, the economy sagged and so did city budgets. Adding additional firemen was not in the plan.
Dirling, who is a part-time Manatee Tech College Fire Science instructor, said times have changed. With Manatee County growing in population, coupled with economic growth, firefighters are once again in demand.
"A lot of districts are growing and expanding," said Tom Sousa, the chief of West Manatee Fire Rescue. "I know East Manatee will be adding more stations, more apparatus, more services. With growth, you need more people. Then you have turnover, attrition. Coupled with the growth, it presents a great opportunity."
The east campus of Manatee Technical College in Lakewood Ranch currently is graduating about 50 firefighters a year from its Fire Science Academy. Coordinator Henry Sheffield, a career firefighter who started in 1973 and eventually became chief of the Braden River Fire Control and Rescue District before retiring and moving into his role as educator, said those students have a much better chance today of finding jobs than even five years ago.
The program's job placement was 79% in 2015.
For those interested in pursing a career as a firefighter, Sheffield said the job has evolved.
"It is a lot more technical now," he said of the education process. "Firefighters are using electronic devises that look through the smoke. We have truck computers that talk to each other. Everyone has a portable radio. It is so technically complex now."
When Sheffield began his own career, he worked in a different age of fire fighting. "These kids say to me now, 'I know your dad, he was the one who had to feed the horses.'"
Bill Kebler is the lead instructor in the Fire Science program at MTC and another career firefighter who spent 18 years as battalion chief with Broward County Fire Rescue. He said today's firefighters need different abilities than in the past.
"They are not all 6-foot-1 with their knuckles dragging on the ground," Kebler said. "We are looking for smart people. You need to have smarts to learn building construction."
Of course, some attributes have not changed.
"You have to be hearty," Kebler said of those who want to enter the profession. "It's hard. But if your heart is there, we can teach you."
Manatee Technical College currently is running four academies and will begin another in August. Currently, MTC has nine high school students in a Firefighter 1 program that prepares the students to work as fire fighting volunteers. Other students are working to complete their Firefighter 2 certification that will allow them to be full-time firefighters or have completed the Firefighter 2 requirement and are working to complete an eight-week course that prepares them to earn EMT certification.
All the fire agencies in Manatee County said they prefer prospective firefighters to have earned their EMT classification.
Armed with a Firefighter 2 certification and an EMT certificate, those looking for work seem likely to find it.
"If I knew someone considering a career as a firefighter, I would say, 'Go for it,'" said Tim Hyden, the training officer for the East Manatee fire district. "You are going to get a job in a couple of years.
"This is a well-rounded profession that has so many things we're all after when it comes to a job. During the recession, it was not a good time for people who wanted to be firefighters. We had never seen anything quite like it and I've been doing this for 24 years. It hit everyone hard. But it's good right now."
Housing developments springing up in Lakewood Ranch have county fire administrators considering more stations.
"Development is going on again," Hyden said. "Eventually, we are going to be looking at opening another station. We ebb and flow with the economy."
Hyden, who has served on the MTC Fire Science Academy advisory board the past 12 years, said the county's fire services are willing to fill expected openings by hiring inexperienced firefighters who have completed the MTC program.
"It's a phenomenal program," Hyden said. "I'm very involved and (the county fire agencies) help guide the academy with the needs of the industry."
Sousa runs a 20-man reserve firefighter program at West Manatee and most of those are fresh out of MTC. In the past year, 12 of his reserves landed full-time jobs.
"To be honest, it is like a waiting ground (for a full-time job)," Sousa said. "We require them to do 48 hours of shift work a month and we give them real-life experience. They basically are auditioning for their next interview."
Getting a job at the busier departments usually is much harder than landing a job at a smaller agency. Myakka City Fire Chief Richard Bartoszek hired two firefighters in 2016 and had only five applicants for the positions. However, he said Myakka answered 625 calls last year, a low number for those who crave the excitement of the job.
"A lot of people don't do this for the money," Sousa said. "They do it for the type of work."
Kebler said everyone has a different definition for the perfect job.
"Students ask, 'Where can I go to progress?' Do you want to go up the ladder? If you go to a spot where the mid-range managers are in their early 40s, you would have to shoot one to move up."
Whatever the goal, Sheffield said MTC tries to proud firefighters who will succeed at any level.
"The biggest thing is they have to decide to bring their "A" game every day," Sheffield said. "What doesn't work is a person who says a lot of 'I, I, I.' People who think their coworkers are not their equals just don't work in this profession.
"And they all have to understand who is responsible for safety on the ground. It's the individual. We ingrain the thought of safety to everyone who goes through these classes. We start off every day talking safety."
Bartoszek said it all means county fire agencies are willing to hire those right out of MTC's program.
"Guys who come out of there are prepared," he said.