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The North St. Paul Fire Department is accepting applications through the end of August for paid-per-call firefighters. Interim Fire Chief Jason Mallinger said no experience is necessary, though anyone who already has EMT or firefighting certifications is encouraged to apply. (Amy Felegy/Review)

The North St. Paul Fire Department at 2400 Margaret St. has around 33 employees. Most of them are paid-per-call firefighters, the chief said, and the department is looking to hire more. (Amy Felegy/Review )

Fire department seeks paid-per-call responders

The age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” often generates a list of classic careers like astronaut, veterinarian or doctor. 

For those who never quite fulfilled their childhood dream of becoming a firefighter, making your 7-year-old self proud might not be out of the question.

The North St. Paul Fire Department is hiring paid-per-call firefighters and the fire chief wants to make one thing clear: people with no experience can apply. 

The department’s once-a-year hiring comes at a time when the nation’s registered career firefighters make up just 33% of all firefighters, meaning the rest are volunteers or paid-per-call, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Closer to home, the are even fewer full-timers.

Just two full-time firefighters have careers at the North St. Paul Fire Department, located at 2400 Margaret St. North, after another accepted a position elsewhere in the city.

The other 30 are part-time, paid-per-call, said Interim Fire Chief Jason Mallinger. 

It’s an issue reaching far past city, county or state limits, with FEMA saying Minnesota ranks second in highest number of volunteer firefighters, right after Delaware — 97.4% of registered fire departments in Minnesota are either entirely or mostly volunteer-based. 

In contrast, every registered firefighter in Washington, D.C., is full-time, and over 90% of fire stations in Hawaii are career-only, FEMA says. 

According to the National Fire Protection Association, most volunteer-run fire stations serve communities with fewer than 25,000 people. North St. Paul fits nicely in that population bound, standing at about 12,000.

“It’s pretty typical for these departments like us to [bring people in with] no experience and go through the training,” Mallinger said. 

Many paid-per-call staffers have full-time jobs elsewhere, making it difficult to maintain employees. Mallinger said when just half of the on-call firefighters respond to emergencies, it’s a blessing.

“It’s difficult to get those people that are committed and stay committed for a long time,” he said. “We have people that make it work, but there’s no doubt it’s a challenge to keep the numbers up.”

The National Fire Protection Association says less than half — 42% — of U.S. volunteer firefighters in 2017 had at least 10 years of active service.

Maplewood Fire Chief Steve Lukin said after his department struggled to hire and keep paid-per-call workers, it switched to full-time staffers only.

“A lot of them were so young and their lifestyles were changing,” Lukin said, nodding to reasons like going back to school, moving homes or getting a new job.

“Years ago when communities and families were different, you would have a person that would live in North St. Paul, maybe raise their whole family, be there their whole life, and be on the department for 20 to 30 years,” Mallinger said. “Now, with jobs and families having more activities, there’s less time for that type of commitment for some people.”

Lukin said scheduling issues combined with high call volumes contributed to Maplewood’s switch eighteen months ago. Ever since, Lukin said having only full-time firefighters has worked out well. 

“We’re fully complemented and it’s been great,” he said.

But not every city has the means to go completely career-based. Citing fiscal budget limitations, Mallinger said North St. Paul is not equipped to cover the city with full-time firefighters. Luckily, he said there seemed to be a heightened interest in paid-per-call staff at an open house in June where 13 people took applications home with them.

 

The paid-per-call hiring process 

Most applications the North St. Paul Fire Department receives are from inexperienced firefighters, which Mallinger said isn’t a problem. Training starts in January and is six months long, roughly twice a week for four hours a day. 

Trainees carry pagers and can assist with emergencies, but Mallinger said the focus is on the training until they become certified. 

An applicant must have good physical health as described by National Fire Protection Association guidelines, and then complete a physical agility test at the station. While wearing full gear, prospective firefighters must carry and drag firehoses, move a 185-pound “Rescue Randy” doll 100 feet, and complete stair and ladder tests. All firefighters at the station put themselves throught the test each year. 

Mallinger said the test is composed of normal movements a firefighter would encounter within the first 10 or 15 minutes of a call. He said most applicants pass.

To those who haven’t considered being a paid-per-call firefighter, Mallinger offers this advice.

“I always say if people are really in need of a part-time job and they need the cash, well maybe going to Menards ... is what you need to do,” he said. “But if you’re looking for something more rewarding and fulfilling and giving back, you’re definitely going to find that on the fire department.”

Perhaps what makes the paid-per-call position special is the camaraderie and service tied into the work.

“The bond everybody has and the rewards that you get from doing the job — it’s different,” Mallinger said.

Applications are being accepted throughout August and people can contact Mallinger at 651-747-2552 for more information. Applicants must be 18 or older and all training is paid for by the department. Paid-per-call firefighters are paid monthly, and they must pass a drug test and background check.

 

–Amy Felegy can be reached at afelegy@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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