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STORY AND VIDEO — Firefighters hard to recruit in Contra Costa: ‘It’s a stressful business and that is the nature of it.’

on December 12, 2022

Crackling sounds fill the air as the flames eat up the building, the trees, the land. The smoke is so thick you cannot see where you are going. Your helmet blocks the view further, pressing down on you like the rest of the 45 pounds of gear protecting you from the intense heat and toxic fumes. A wave of claustrophobia and fear rises. That’s when your training kicks in. 

“You can’t be afraid of the dark and you can’t be afraid of small spaces. You have to push your fear back and do your job,” says Ross Macumber, battalion chief at the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. His experience from over 20 years in the fire service and continuous training as a firefighter most likely saved his life more times than he can fathom. 

Not everyone is made to be a firefighter, but there used to be more people who were up for the job. Past fire seasons showed the dangers and health risks firefighters face in a society that becomes more aware of mental and physical health, leading to a decrease in recruitment numbers for the Contra Costa Fire Protection District, and vacancies in entry-level positions as well as ranking ones. 

“There used to be 4,000 applications for 10 jobs, but now we’ve seen about half as many, which is a significant decrease in the past few years,” says Vince Wells, president of United Firefighters of Contra Costa County, which represents professional firefighters in the county. 

Contra Costa is one of the largest fire districts in California. It stretches across 304 square miles and operates 36 fire stations in 14 cities as well as unincorporated areas. Covering such a large district requires a well-staffed fire department. Recruiting that staff takes time.

Candidates first are tested and interviewed, then go through a psychological and physical evaluation, before attending a four-month training course. 

“You cannot just hire somebody, and they immediately become a firefighter. The whole process of staffing the units takes up to a year,” Wells says. 

The minimum requirements to become a firefighter in Contra Costa County include a valid driver’s license and EMT training. Some fire departments also require a paramedic certificate or other training.

Due to the pandemic, schools and training facilities were closed for two years, creating a backlog at EMT and paramedic schools, where fire departments typically find a large recruiting pool. 

 “We’re still not caught up from that shutdown, and things are only slowly getting back to normal,” Macumber says.

Wells receives weekly calls from fire stations in the county with staffing problems. Firefighters work longer shifts to cover the ground, but that is not a long-term solution.

“It’s a stressful business and that is the nature of it. They work 48 hours on and 96 hours off. The operational tempo is high, and we are the busiest district in the county,” says Steve Hill, the Contra Costa district’s public information officer.

Sinking feeling

CalFire listed the 2020 fire season as the state’s worst, and that year, Contra Costa County was involved in the third-largest fire complex — a scenario in which multiple fires occur in the same area under one jurisdiction. According to CalFire’s report, almost 400,000 acres and 200 structures burned in the SCU Lightning Complex.

The fires were started on Aug. 16 by dry lightning flashes. In the middle of the night, Macumber was shaken out of his sleep by the boom of lightning hitting the ground. As his phone lit up with fire alerts, he quickly dressed and went to work. 

“I just remember how hot and humid it was and seeing lightning everywhere. That’s when that sinking feeling hit me that this is really happening,” Macumber says.

For the next 24 hours, he and his colleagues worked with little or no breaks while new fire alerts kept coming in. With every hour, the temperature and humidity rose, pushing the firefighters to their limits.

“They were digging deep into their personal self for whatever energy they had to keep pushing through,” Macumber says.

When teams from southern California arrived the next day, the Contra Costa firefighters got to take a break. On his way home, all Macumber could see bright orange fire on the hills and thick gray smoke, with lightning still striking.

Only a year later did Macumber realize how lucky the county and its firefighters were that the SCU Lightening Complex didn’t spread further and that only minor injuries were reported. He still gets anxious whenever there is lightning. 

With wildfires becoming common in California, Macumber says he understands why younger people would find the profession so daunting. 

“All we’ve seen every summer are these massive blazes showing people the horror stories. If I’m somebody young who is not sure about this career, I’d be scared too,” Macumber says.

Cancer concerns

Wells, the union president, has noticed that younger people are not only concerned about the danger they would face as firefighters but also with the possible long-term physical and mental repercussions.

A comprehensive 2015 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that compared to the general U.S. population, firefighters had a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses — especially mesothelioma and respiratory, digestive and urinary system cancers — and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths. 

In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration concluded in a 2018 bulletin that firefighters’ exposure to traumatic experiences combined with their irregular sleep schedules can have a significant impact on their mental health. SAMHSA also pointed out that stigma and financial costs kept some firefighters from getting help. 

Besides his role as battalion chief, Macumber also oversees the fire district’s health and wellness program. One of his major tasks is to get firefighters a yearly comprehensive physical examination that includes in-depth scans to look for cancer markers, heart disease and other physical issues that often go unnoticed.

The program also offers a free app for mindfulness and meditation, a helpful tool for mental health and regulating sleep. A trained group within the district is deployed to check on the mental state of firefighters whenever they face a traumatic experience on a scene.

Doctors and psychologists visit the fire stations. But unlike Los Angeles County, Contra Costa does not have a medical facility for firefighters. It is, however, looking to develop a health and wellness center, Macumber says. 

By ensuring access to preventive care as well as offering mental and physical health care, Macumber and his colleagues hope to encourage more people to become firefighters. 

Hill said the district put significantly more energy into recruiting in recent years. It organizes events where people have the opportunity to get informed about the career and also partners with schools and colleges that have fire classes in their curriculum.

“We have to try harder to compete for a noticeably smaller pool of recruits,” Hill says.

The district also offers specialty training in such things as hazmat, aviation firefighting or heavy rescue, which covers such things as extrication. The versatility creates an environment that offers a diversity of assignments and the opportunity to work all over the county, Hill says.

Recruits line up during this year’s Contra Costa County Fire Protection District’s academy training. (Jule Hermann)

Macumber noted that there are many rewards to being a firefighter, intangibles that keep people on the job. Even after the busy 2020 fire season, the vast majority of the district’s firefighters continued with the work.

Job satisfaction takes different forms. One time, Macumber and his team saved boxes of pictures from a home before they went up in flames. When they handed a saved family photo to a resident, she started to cry and said it was the only photograph in the house she cared about.

“There is this sense of purpose and belonging and that what we do means something,” Macumber says.

The desire to serve the public is one of the many attributes he and his colleagues look for in recruits. Many recruits already have taken fire classes or come from firefighting families. Recruiting people with no connection to fire service is a bigger problem, he says. 

“How do we grab people who may not think about doing this job but would be great firefighters? Because they are out there.” 

Information about the job and how to become a Contra Costa Fire Protection District firefighter is on the district’s website.

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