By Callie Hietala
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 among more than 100 applicants.
Now, Anderson said the department is lucky to get 10 applications for full-time positions, and even fewer are left once applicants are vetted through a screening process.
This is the challenge that Anderson and the department currently faces when seeking to hire new full- and part-time staff to fill upcoming vacancies.
“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.”
The decline in applicants for fire and EMS positions began well before the COVID-19 pandemic led to nationwide staffing shortages.
“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 due to 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,” he said.
It isn’t enough for a crew member to have the ability to respond to calls, Anderson said. 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,” 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,” Anderson said.
Additionally, potential applicants are often put off by stories about the “blood, guts, and gore” that can sometimes accompany the job. Anderson said, adding the traumatic incidents are talked about the most, but happen the least.
“The part of 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 hopes to hire 3 full-time, and at least 3 part-time employees to fill vacancies that will be created within the next six months, as several firefighters retire.
Anderson cites early retirement as one of the many benefits of the job. Employees are enrolled in the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) and receives hazardous duty pay.
Once an employee reaches the age of 50, they may retire with full benefits with 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, he said.
“On top of that, 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 an additional $1,222 per month on top of what you draw from the state’s retirement,” Anderson said.
Many retired firefighters have as much income in retirement as when they were working, or close to it, Anderson said, and added the early retirement age means many are still young enough to embark on another career path or pursue a favorite hobby.
Anderson pointed out 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, meaning it only accepts applicants who have already received, or are in the process of working toward, the necessary certifications.
He said 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.
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.
The department works with employees still attending classes to make it easier for them to go to school and get the needed training, he said.
However, Anderson said that is not to discourage anyone interested in joining the ranks who may not yet have received any of the required education.
In those cases, Anderson recommends joining local volunteer fire departments. Volunteers would have first and easy access to the necessary classes as they become available, he said, adding that most departments also have funds to help pay for those classes.
The initial firefighter/EMT certification can be earned in a year and cost the student less than $1,000, he said. Additionally, working with a volunteer department provides an opportunity to learn, first-hand whether the career is a good fit.
“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.
Of the part-time vacancies, Anderson said that, though the agency is only seeking to fill three positions, if more qualified candidates apply, there is some flexibility. Part-time employees would be asked to work only a few days each month, helping to fill shifts when others are out sick or on vacation, or when the department needed to increase staffing, as it did during the recent snowstorm.
He noted that the department often looks to its part-time staff first when looking to fill full-time positions.
Overall, Anderson said, 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.”
Training for accepted applicants begins Jan. 29. To apply, click the jobs tab on the city’s website, www.martinsville-va.gov.