The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 24, 2013

UPDATE: Athens fire department seeks certified firefighters

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— Ever thought about a career as a firefighter?

The pay starts at $26,873 per year in Athens, with annual raises and opportunity for advancement and more money. And, those who do, find it extremely rewarding.

If this sounds good to you and you want to get on board, the best route is to get pre-certified as a firefighter, which takes a total of 16 weeks of training to be ready for hire at Athens Fire & Rescue.

In the year since Tony Kirk became Athens fire chief he has hired seven employees. And, he has eight other firefighters eligible for retirement.

“Eight already have their time in and could leave, though some may have finance obligations, such as a child in college, that prompt them to stay a little longer,” Kirk said.

The opportunity, he said, is there for those who are interested.

If you want to greatly improve your chance of getting hired by Athens — or any other fire department in the state — you need to get certified before you apply for a job, the chief said.

A certified firefighter is one who has passed the agility test, the emergency medical technician training and training at the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa or the regional campus in Muscle Shoals. The college, once closed to general admission, is now open to anyone who wants to pay the tuition.

The trend toward hiring already-trained firefighters has taken hold across the country. Kirk said this has two benefits — it saves the city time and money.

“If I hire a firefighter who is uncertified as a firefighter and EMT, I’m looking at close to a year before I can put him (or her) on the truck and fight fires,” Kirk said.

To train the firefighter, the city has to pay $2,500 to cover tuition at the fire college, room, board and salary while the firefighter trains. If the applicant has already taken care of this step, he or she is much more likely to get hired, the chief said.

Over the past year, Kirk has saved the city about $17,500 in tuition, room, board and salary by hiring certified firefighters.

“That is why we are trying so hard now to hire people already certified,” he said.

Of the 12 to 15 applications Athens Fire & Rescue receives each month, only four to six applicants are certified, Kirk said.

For those who are uncertified, he said, “I can’t even consider them for a job until they pass the physical agility test.” What is the agility test?

“It is the hardest 10 minutes you will spend in your life,” the chief said.

For those applicants who do choose to get pre-certified, Kirk recommends first taking the EMT portion of the required training at Calhoun Community College or some other college close to home.

"They are pouring all this medical information into you and it can be extremely hard to absorb all of that,” Kirk said.

The fire college offers a five-week, fast-track EMT course as well as a semester-long EMT course.

What a chief wants

In hiring a firefighter, the chief said he looks for someone who is extremely honest (because he or she will be working inside homes and businesses where valuables are unsecured; hardworking; and free of any felony convictions. (Arrests without conviction and traffic tickets do not count.)

Satisfaction

Although firefighting is dangerous, the chief said, law-enforcement officers face the daily threat of being shot, a danger not typically experienced by firefighters. The benefits of being a firefighter are many.

“The main thing is the satisfaction you get from being able to help someone,” said Kirk, who has been a firefighter for 27 years. “If someone calls the fire department, they are in trouble — whether it is a wreck or a fire or something else — and they are glad to see you.”

Firefighters and police officers have a running joke, he said, about how the public is happy to see firefighters but less delighted to see police officers because they associate them with tickets, fines and jail.

“The work is extremely gratifying and you get to be around a lot of good people,” the chief said. “Most people in the fire service are here to try to help other people.”

For more information on what it required to be a certified firefighter, go online to http://www.alabamafirecollege.net.