When Ted Anderson, Martinsville’s fire chief and fire marshal, applied for his position at Martinsville Fire & EMS more than 25 years ago, he was in a pool of over 100 applicants.
Now, Anderson said, the department is lucky to get 10 applications for full-time positions. Fewer remain once applicants are vetted through a screening process.
This is the challenge that Anderson and the department currently face, as new full- and part-time staff are sought to fill upcoming vacancies in the department.
“It’s a great career,” Anderson said. “It’s a very rewarding, very humbling career, but I guess if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”
He said the decline in applicants for fire and EMS positions began even before the COVID-19 pandemic led to nationwide staffing shortages, and noted the issue is wide-ranging. “Our partners, our neighbors throughout the Commonwealth, throughout the nation, are facing the same difficulties,” he said.
Though he acknowledged that Martinsville does not have the same level of staffing shortages facing other departments— “We’re very blessed to have the quantity and quality of people that we have,” he said—it still struggles to find people to fill open positions.
Part of the difficulty stems from the requirements of the job itself—the work is not something just anyone can do. Anderson said the department must be particular about who it hires because of the unique nature and responsibilities of the position. “We have to make sure that the people we’re sending into our citizens’ homes have good backgrounds, they’re morally and ethically good people—the cream of the crop.”
It isn’t enough, Anderson explained, for a crew member to have the ability to respond to calls. An applicant’s character and personality matter just as much as physical ability. “When they’re in someone’s house, we want to know they’re trustworthy people,” he said.
“You can be trained for just about anything if you’re willing to do it,” he said, but personality and character cannot be taught. “We want people that are dedicated, with good morals and ethics. You’ve got to have that trust. When you’re in that house fighting a fire, you’ve got to know that the person beside you has your back.”
Additionally, he said, potential applicants are often put off by hearing stories about the “blood, guts, and gore” that can sometimes accompany the job. Anderson said that, while there are traumatic times, those get talked about the most but actually happen the least. “The part of that that trumps that (the traumatic moments) is the property you save, the lives you save, the appreciation and respect that you get,” he said.
Currently, Anderson said, the department seeks applicants to fill immediate full-time and part-time vacancies.
According to the hiring notice posted to the Martinsville Fire & EMS Facebook page, the starting pay range for part-time employees is $15.79 to $18.53 per hour, based on Virginia firefighter/EMS certification.
The minimum starting pay for full-time staff is $37,736 for a firefighter/EMT to $48,267 for a firefighter/paramedic, again based on Virginia firefighter/EMS certifications.
Anderson noted the base salary does not include overtime pay.
He cited early retirement as one of the many benefits of the job. Employees are enrolled in Virginia’s Retirement System and also receive hazardous duty pay, he explained. Once an employee reaches the age of 50, they may retire with full benefits after only 25 years of service. That means that, if someone entered the department at the age of 25, they could retire at the age of 50, fully vested.
“On top of that,” Anderson added, “as long as you’ve been with an agency like ours for 20 years, you get the hazardous duty pay, which right now, by itself, is just over $1,200 per month on top of what you draw from the state’s retirement.”
Many retirees have as much income in retirement as they did while they were working, or close to it. Plus, he said, the early retirement age means many are still young enough when they finish their service to embark on another career path or simply choose to spend time pursuing their favorite hobbies.
Anderson noted that applicants who already have certifications as a Virginia firefighter and paramedic may be eligible for a $6,000 sign-on bonus.
Because the Martinsville agency is relatively small, Anderson said it does not participate in a training academy. Only applicants who have already received, or who are in the process of working toward the necessary certifications, are considered.
Applicants must be a Virginia-certified firefighter/EMT and/or intermediate/paramedic and preference would be given to applicants with firefighter/advanced life support (ALS) certifications, he said.
For those who may not yet have all the necessary certifications but have already begun the process, Anderson said that Martinsville offers educational incentives, particularly funds that can be used toward those certifications. He said the department works with employees still attending classes to make it easier for them to go to school and get the training they need.
However, Anderson said he does not want to discourage anyone interested in joining the ranks who may not yet have received any of the required education. For those, Anderson said he highly recommended joining local volunteer fire departments. Volunteers would have first and easy access to the necessary classes as they become available Most departments, he said, have funds to help pay for those classes.
The initial firefighter/EMT certification, he said, can be earned in a year and cost the student less than $1,000. Additionally, working with a volunteer department offers the unique opportunity to learn first-hand if the career path is the right one for you.
“How many other careers do you know of that let you go out and get the certifications for that little money and get to see whether you like it or not,” he asked.
Anderson said part-time employees are asked to work a few days each month, helping to fill shifts when people are out sick or on vacation, or when the department needs to increase staffing.
He noted the department often looks to its part-time staff first when looking to fill its full-time positions.
Overall, Anderson said that while the work may be difficult at times and the requirements may be stringent, new members of the city’s fire and EMS department would be joining a “tight-knit group” where “everybody encourages each other, whatever the struggles may be.”
Testing for accepted applicants begins July 30 and applications are due by Friday, July 15. To apply, click the jobs tab on the city’s website, www.martinsville-va.gov.