A class of 15 began training to become full-fledged members of the River Falls Fire Department last month. Those recruits, who finished a screening process, boosted RFFD's roster to about 55 members.
Fire Chief Scott Nelson said his department averages about 50 firefighters. At that level, it can be assured that, on average, 15-17 members will respond to pages for actual fire calls.
The 50-member average might be a little high for a community the size of River Falls, but with some firefighters also working commuters who are away during weekdays, it gives a cushion to ensure adequate 24/7 fire coverage.
Nelson said new firefighters are generally hired as a group every few years. Applications, however, are taken all the time and kept on a file.
As RFFD's membership declines through attrition -- retirements, moving away -- the pool of applicants grows. At some point a decision is made to look over the applicant list and prepare for a new recruiting class.
"We bring them on as a class rather than individuals," Nelson said. "This gives the recruits a chance to bond and give each other support.
"They learn as they go along together. We've found this group approach helps with our retention rates."
Nelson said that in the last 10-20 years, volunteer firefighting recruitment has gotten "absolutely harder."
"It's today's hectic lifestyles," he said. "It's difficult to get people to commit. You have dual-income families, kids involved with many activities.
"We ask that applicants make a strong, long-term commitment. Doing so, you really need the support of other family members and loved ones."
Nelson is blunt when addressing firefighting applicants invited to attend an informational meeting.
"I want them to know what they're getting into," he said. That includes weekly training sessions: "We own you on Monday nights," the chief quipped.
After the information session, applicants fill out a multiple-choice test that Nelson calls "part common sense and part mechanical abilities."
Those that score a 70% minimum pass, move on to an agility test inside the fire hall that measures stamina and dexterity.
The final phase is a 15-minute, one-on-one oral interview with a panel of five or six firefighting officers and members.
"It's like a job interview," said Nelson, who does not participate. "The interview panel gives ownership to the firefighters for the kinds of people they will be expected to work with."
The 15 picked are then given conditional offers, pending background checks. They meet privately with Nelson.
"I welcome them, go over the ground rules, answer any questions," he said. "It's pretty informal."
After that, recruits embark on what amounts to 1 ½ years' worth of training drills culminating in a live, controlled, house burn sponsored by Chippewa Valley Technical College.
"How they react and perform that live burn is like their graduation," Nelson said.
By this time recruits have passed Entry Level, Firefighter1 and Firefighter2 phases of training totaling nearly 140 hours.
Before that, they respond only infrequently and under guidance to actual fire calls. They still must complete one more training phase -- First Responder, where they're taught medical skills for assisting ambulance crews.
Nelson admits that firefighter training is "front-end loaded." Some recruits don't stick it out. Most do.
"And after that, the job is about responding to your pager when it goes off," he said.
What does Nelson look for in a potential firefighter?
"Someone who is community oriented and very concerned about safety," he said. "Someone who understands the commitment of time and energy involved, and has the support of a spouse or a significant other. If you don't have that family support, you'll fail."
Nelson said firefighting, like policing, is often viewed as glamorous. He said recruits should be more realistic.
"It's really not glamorous if you have to spend your Christmas Eve out at a car wreck during a blizzard," he said. "There's a lot of hard, thankless work that firefighters also do behind the scenes. Some of its menial and dirty, like cleaning and maintaining the equipment and machinery."
Nelson said firefighter safety is a prime focus.
"Of course you have to be able to handle an axe and a hose, but we stress learning how to use the personal protection equipment and keeping yourself out of harm's way," he said. "Toward that end we use a buddy system, so that you're never working alone but in teams."
For much more on this story, please see the April 11 print edition of the River Falls Journal.