Firefighter Aaron Hykes says he never knows what will happen when he heads to work for the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, recalling a winter day in 2017 when he and other first responders delivered three babies during their shift – an experience as vivid as the births of his own three children.
“You’re trained to do this,” says Hykes, a lieutenant and nine-year veteran of the department who is working out of Fire Station 26 in Bethesda. “When you’re in the moment, you’re just doing what you’ve been trained to do. Afterwards, it’s like ‘Hey man, that was really cool. We just brought in another life.’ ”
As challenges in recruitment persist during the COVID-19 pandemic, MCFRS is trying to boost the number of its applicants by giving them an opportunity to ride on a fire truck for a day, observe firefighters and paramedics at work and learn about the advantages of working for the department.
Before the pandemic started in 2020, more than 1,700 people applied per recruitment period, according to Jay Blake, the department’s recruitment and human resources battalion chief. Since then, MCFRS has been receiving about half of that number, or more than 800 applications during a recruitment period.
That trend is coupled with an average attrition rate of 40 to 60 firefighters who retire per year, according to Blake. The department has nearly 2,700 career and volunteer members. By offering the opportunity for the ride alongs, the department hopes to boost its application numbers, Blake said.
“We’re open [for applicants] until the end of August and we thought if more people in the public have an opportunity to see what we do every day, that would increase our applications, specifically for county residents. We’re always looking for more county residents to work with us,” he said.
When firefighters aren’t fighting fires or running other calls, they might be training or performing other tasks such as visiting various sites in the station’s coverage area to examine the availability of hydrants, according to MCFRS officials, who allowed a Bethesda Beat reporter to ride along Monday with a crew as part of the department’s recruitment efforts.
A common exercise is for firefighters to park a fire engine in a certain spot of an apartment community in order to determine the distance to the farthest apartment, Hykes said. That’s important for firefighters like Hykes, who “floats” from station to station so he isn’t as familiar as the Bethesda station’s staff with how to access the more challenging buildings in the area. On Monday, the crew drove a firetruck around the Wildwood shopping center on Old Georgetown Road and a residential community in Bethesda.
“Then you can figure out, if [a fire] is reported in apartment 305, I need exactly 400 feet of hose, or whatever,” Hykes said. It’s the type of preparation work for a real emergency that might seem mundane to the layperson, but it is actually very important, he said.
“Most people think that firemen just come in to work and sit in a recliner until the bells go off. That’s not the case,” Hykes said.
The search for recruits
Applying for a job in the fire department is a rigorous, multi-step process that can last six to eight months, Blake said. It consists of an application, written exam, physical ability test, background check and health assessment. In a typical class of 800 applicants, the pool generally narrows to about 350 after the entrance exam, 160 after the physical test and 120 after the background check, according to Blake. Those that are accepted then attend a training academy.
New recruiting classes are scheduled to enter the department in September as well as January, Blake said. The current recruitment period is for a class that will enter service roughly a year from now.
“This is really our first recruitment drive post-COVID, so we’re doing a lot of in person stuff,” he said. “We didn’t go to career fairs. We didn’t go to schools during COVID because everyone was home, or there were a lot of restrictions. And so we’re trying to get people back face to face.”
Pay for Fire & Rescue Service members can range from $50,000 for a first-year firefighter, to as much as $135,000 a year for a captain who has 24 years of service with the department, according to the pay scale chart. Some employees serve on a shift schedule, meaning that they work 24 hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., followed by two days off. Other employees serve on a “day work” schedule, meaning that they work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Employees also are assigned a “Kelly Day,” which is a permanent day off during the week that helps to balance the number of hours each member works per month.
Though Fire & Rescue offers a competitive salary relative to other departments in the greater Washington region, competition among the area fire departments can pose a challenge, Blake said.
“Those people who truly have a passion to be in the fire department … they’re applying to all these other jobs: D.C., Loudoun County, Fairfax, Baltimore, Anne Arundel. And whoever calls first with the offer, they’re gonna take it,” he said.
Hykes, who was promoted to lieutenant in October 2021, initially became a paramedic after college and took a job with a rescue squad in Hagerstown.
“It just worked out, dumb luck, that when I finished the paramedic program basically everyone was on a hiring freeze for four years,” he said.
Hykes said in Hagerstown he was making between $50,000 and $55,000 a year, but was not home as often as he would have liked. In Montgomery County, Hykes said he is making roughly double the salary he was making in Hagerstown.
Since joining Montgomery County’s department, he’s been able to earn more money and work his way through the ranks in less than 10 years.
“If you look at other departments, you might start out a little bit more than what Montgomery County is [offering] moneywise, but the opportunities for overtime, training opportunities, promotional opportunities… . I don’t think there’s probably too many other places in the country that offer that,” he said.
Hykes said competition among the departments in the region makes hiring difficult due to a narrowing of the pool of applicants.
“Everybody is now hiring at the same time. So you’re taking the same number of applicants and spreading it out to almost seven, eight, 10 jurisdictions,” he said. “So the pool’s kind of smaller to pick from, more or less.”
Ravi Robinson, a firefighter and paramedic, said a proactive hiring strategy is important when it comes to keeping pace with the demand for services in the county.
“The county is still rapidly growing in its outer limits. And so, you need to be building more fire stations and meeting demand. And so, if you have 50 people eligible [for retirement] every six months, if you’re not hiring 100 people a year-ish, then you’ll never catch the number,” he said.
Duties that vary from day to day
The number of calls that come in to Fire Station 26 can vary from day to day. Monday was relatively quiet, with firefighters and paramedics heading out on a few medical calls in the morning. In one case a patient suffering chest pains was taken to a local hospital at a family member’s request. During the afternoon, a crew responded to a fender bender on Rockville Pike, where the fire engine was needed as the “blocking unit,” – meaning that the truck was used to alert motorists to the accident. In that case, a person involved in the crash, though not seriously injured, asked to be taken to a hospital as a precautionary measure.
Derek Graham, a firefighter and EMT who normally works at station 29 in Germantown, said that being a firefighter can be a “thankless job” sometimes.
“I would tell any of the recruits, that someone calls 911 because they are unsure of what to do. We have to be the problem solvers for them and lighten up their day,” he said.
Graham said some calls can be stressful, but he tries to maintain a cool disposition. He doesn’t “bring work home” to his family, but sometimes must explain to his 3-year-old son why he might not be home for a special event.
“A lot of people don’t understand the events you take for granted: birthdays, sports events. There are going to be times when I miss those events,” he said.
Firefighter Dan Kaplan said applicants must understand the physical demands of the job. Not getting enough sleep during a busy night shift can be stressful, he said.
“If this is what you want to do, make sure you do your research. There is a percentage of people that we hire as recruits, who don’t take it seriously and get fired or they don’t realize that we work 24-hour shifts … and then they quit,” he said.
Adjusting to the COVID era
Before the pandemic, paramedics often received service calls for medical issues that could be handled by primary care physicians, according to Robinson, who has worked at Fire Station 26 for six years. Call volume overall dropped 20% to 30% when the pandemic started, but the calls they were getting were often for more severe medical situations, he said.
Robinson said Montgomery County has also seen a significant increase in its “blue alert” status since the start of the pandemic. A blue alert means that the county’s hospital system has a shortage of beds and is taxed to its limit, meaning that an ambulance must take a patient to the next closest hospital that can provide care.
“Pre-pandemic we weren’t regularly on blue. It happened for snowstorms and other occurrences, but it wasn’t regular. Blue is now very regular,” he said.
The pandemic highlighted the dangers that first responders face when dealing with the public and that may be a reason why prospective recruits might be more hesitant to apply, Robinson said.
“I think right now you have people [who] … are a lot less likely to want to get into this because it’s made the risk more visible,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com