Checks for new fire hires detailed
Criminal, background probes are done
PETERBOROUGH — The recent arrest of a former Peterborough firefighter, who is accused of setting a series of fires that broke out in Durham in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, inevitably raises questions about how the Peterborough Fire and Rescue Department goes about recruiting, screening and hiring people for the challenging job of being a firefighter and emergency medical technician.
In an interview last week, Fire Chief Joseph Lenox and Deputy Chief Brian Wall discussed the constant challenge of maintaining the department’s roster of 70 part-time firefighter/EMTs and paramedics.
“We’re actively looking for people right now,” Wall said. “If people have prior training, it’s a big plus, but we are willing to train people.”
Wall said the town doesn’t distinguish between firefighters and EMTs, but requires applicants to become qualified to do both jobs.
“You can’t be just a firefighter,” he said. “To get the firefighter 1 and EMT status requires about 400 hours of training. You have to have a passion for doing this type of work. If you don’t have it in your heart, you’re not going to be able to do it.”
Wall said candidates for the firefighter/EMT job, which is a part-time, on-call position, must be 18 or older and must live in Peterborough. They are required to submit an application with references.
“We do a background check, do a criminal records check,” Wall said. “Candidates are drug screened and go for a physical check at [Monadnock Community Hospital].”
Candidates then sit for an oral interview with senior members of the department.
Lenox said the department is limited in what can be asked during the interview.
“You really can’t ask a lot of stuff anymore,” he said. “You can’t ask about age or if they’re married. We ask about educational history and work experience. We ask if they can work on evenings, Christmas or Easter.”
He said the department doesn’t do any type of psychological testing during the interview process.
“We do criminal and motor vehicle checks. We check references. You do the best you can with what you have,” Lenox said.
One of the main goals of the interview, according to Lenox, is to give candidates a clear understanding of what the job requires. He said he tells people, “Don’t make a decision until you talk it over with your family. It’s a lot more than going to three or four calls a week. If we have a building fire on Christmas day, we expect you to come.”
Wall said about one of every five candidates who applies for the firefighter/EMT job will eventually be hired. Many lose interest when they learn what the job requires.
“It’s intense,” he said. “Just the basic orientation takes about 25 hours.”
The department will pay for training, at a rate of $8.99 per hour, with wage increases coming after someone completes training. The pay rate increases to a maximum of about $17 an hour, Lenox said.
While firefighter/EMTs are eligible to work up to 34 hours a week, most average about 20 hours a month and hold down other jobs.
They can sign up to work a shift, but there are always a number of firefighters on-call as well for the ambulance service. While on-call, they get one-eighth of their hourly pay, unless they are called in.
And if their pagers goes off, they are expected to respond, no matter what time of day.
“It’s a system that’s been working well for years,” said Lenox, who is the department’s only full-time employee . He said shifting to a full-time staff would add about $1.5 million to the department’s budget.
Wall said Peterborough, like other towns that rely on part-time firefighters, occasionally trains someone to be a firefighter/EMT only to lose them to a city that offers a full-time job with benefits.
“That’s a risk you have to take,” he said.
Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.