Grads help short-staffed fire departments

Fire departments across San Mateo County will see some fresh faces for the holidays as 20 new graduates from the Firefighters’ Academy join their ranks.

New graduates are trained in basic firefighting and paramedic work, but will continue to train on the job for a two-year probationary period, said Armando Muela, chiefof the Woodside Fire Protection District. Woodside is hiring five of new graduates.

“These guys will bring us up to our minimum staffing level, which is 13,” Muela said. “We’ve been using overtime to backfill the positions, but that puts strain on us.”

The grads will bring much-needed relief to chronically understaffed fire departments, where firefighters have been working grueling amounts of overtime to fill in for sick or injured co-workers. And, as many crew members reach retirement age, fire chiefs are happy to bring new cadets on board.

“We don’t want our existing personally to get burned out — and you run into the danger of having to shut down an engine company because you don’t have enough people here to work,” said Doug Fry, chief of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department.

Although it can be cheaper for fire departments to pay existing employees overtime — rather than the salary and benefits of an additional firefighter — chiefs still prefer having more people on their crews.

“We’re losing a lot of senior people and a lot of knowledge, and the charge for fire chiefs is to maintain a certain level of service,” Fry said. “Recruitment is tougher, because a lot of people applying to take the test [to become firefighters] aren’t really qualified.”

That’s where the academy — operated at College of San Mateo — comes in. In the intensive, 15-week session, students learn more than 450 tasks they will need in the firefighting world, including hazardous-materials handling, emergency medical services, ropes and knots, and extinguishing fires, according to Kevin McWhorter, division chief with the Millbrae Fire Department.

Training comes from chiefs and captains of San Mateo County’s 17 fire departments — each one an expert in different rescue and firefighting tactics.

Students also undergo a punishing physical-fitness regime, McWhorter said, who added thatthe program is designed to give students a good idea of what working on a fire crew is like.

“It’s not a job for everyone,” McWhorter said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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