Demarcus Jiles spent his senior year training for the rest of his life. That work will pay off sooner than nearly everyone else he graduated with.
Jiles, a Jeff Davis High School Class of 2019 member, was also a student at the Montgomery Preparatory Academy for Career Technologies where he studied fire sciences.
The class, taught by a former Montgomery firefighter, gives high school students a taste of the fire service and an opportunity to begin their adult lives debt free with a steady career. For the Montgomery Fire Department, the program also acts as a crucial source of qualified recruits who can give dedicated years to the fire service.
Jiles, 18, will soon leave his job at Chick-fil-A and join a class of about 30 recruits, all older than he is, with the department.
He is one of the department’s successes in recruiting, a task that most departments across the state and nation are struggling to thrive at.
Though, it’s not for lack of trying.
With steady growth in the U.S. economy and low unemployment, recruiting for public safety jobs has become increasingly difficult with a small applicant pool. For a fire department though, where it’s becoming important to know life-saving medical techniques as well as firefighting, filling the ranks can be cumbersome.
At a deficit
With 412 current members, the Montgomery Fire Department is short nearly 40 firefighters to fill the number of funded positions, and short about 70 to reach its authorized strength.
Higher level positions, like those as training officers or fire investigators, are not fully staffed so the fire stations can be, Montgomery fire Capt. Jason Cupps said.
“We’re not putting the city in unsafe conditions,” he said. “We have all of our engines and trucks staffed to serve Montgomery, but we’re having to not fill those other positions to do it.”
It’s also costing the city in overtime.
For the current fiscal year, from October to the last pay period, the city has spent over $1 million in overtime for the fire department. By comparison, the Montgomery Police Department has spent about $767,000 on overtime.
Large overtime expenses have been an issue for the city in the past. In the 2018 fiscal year, the fire department had about $2.2 million in overtime.
The only way to get that cost down is to hire more and retain those currently employed. Since the Montgomery Fire Department is large enough to have its own academy, the city’s firefighters are often sought after for their skill and professionalism, according to department leadership.
“I’ve gotten calls from another department rubbing it in my face that three of our guys interviewed and they were just trying to decide which one to pick,” Chief of Staff John Petrey said recently.
While the MFD is a high paying department, the Tuscaloosa, Pelham and Huntsville fire departments are at the top of the list, Cupps said.
Retention becomes an even larger problem when there’s not a steady flow of qualified candidates applying to start a career in the fire service.
“Issues with recruitment in the fire service these days are related to how well the economy is performing. The better the economy, the less number of qualified individuals we have apply,” Matt Russell, the executive director of the Alabama Fire College said.
According to Cupps, the majority of men and women applying are between 18 and 25 years old, the age at which people might consider higher education in a booming economy. During a recession though, trades and government jobs are more coveted for having reliable benefits and paychecks.
Issues with the state retirement system for firefighters have also been a hindrance on recruiting, Russell said.
“I’ve spoken to departments in north and south Alabama, and they claim the dissolution of Tier 1 benefits for entry-level employees in 2012 have hurt recruitment efforts,” he said. “Often times tradesmen can make more money working construction but the draw for the firefighting and law enforcement in government employment are the benefits.”
Planting the seed
A large number of recruits hear of openings simply by word of mouth, Cupps said. That’s how he came to the department.
“I met a guy who was going through the academy here when I was still in college, and I just kind of put it in the back of my mind that it might be a career opportunity one day,” Cupps said.
But Cupps, who does a lot of the recruiting as the public information officer, is not relying on word of mouth to catch any potential recruits. In between answering inquires about house fires, he’s planning more recruiting events.
In recent months, the fire department has capitalized on captive audiences like those at movie theaters.
“Ads before movies are great because we have a better chance of people not being distracted by their phones or anything else,” he said.
Aside from job fairs, Cupps has also made an effort to visit high schools in the River Region to talk with juniors and seniors.
“Seniors are the ones who will be more readily available and can meet that 18-year-old age requirement, but I’ll talk to anyone who will listen, especially juniors,” he said. “I like to plant that seed as soon as I can.”
On a recent visit to Elmore County High School, about 70 students came to listen to Cupps and Assistant Chief Allen Wiggins, a graduate of the school, talk about their career and why the fire service is a good choice.
At the end of the half-hour presentation, about five students remained to talk more with Cupps and Wiggins.
Will Baldwin, a junior, said the presentation has encouraged him to more seriously consider the fire department as a career choice.
“I’m still thinking about the military, the fire department or the police department,” he said. “I’m going to choose between one of those three, but I like the idea of the fire investigator position where I’d be a firefighter but also kind of a police officer.”
Snagging high school graduates, like Jiles, for the fire service not only fills MFD’s ranks, but it also allows teens to start their career debt free.
A career in the fire department was an obvious choice for Jiles, he said. With a cousin already in the fire service, and a solid foundation of knowledge thanks to his work at MPACT, Jiles is setting himself up to be successful.
As a trainee, Jiles will be making a little over $38,000, with a bump in pay once he graduates from the academy. He will be eligible for retirement before he’s 45.
And if he so chooses, he can pursue a bachelor’s degree in a fire service related curriculum, and the city will reimburse him for good grades.
But Jiles is only the second graduate from the fire sciences MPACT program to join the fire department after high school, Cupps said. The program started in 2013.
“We’re hoping we can have more from that,” he said.
Jiles, when asked why most students don’t continue from the MPACT program into the fire service, said he believes the pressure to go to college is very strong.
“College isn’t for everyone,” he said. “You don’t have to go to college to be successful. Being a firefighter is a great way to set yourself up for success. You have to have a drive inside of you to be a firefighter and that’s going to take me far.”