South King Fire and Rescue has kicked off efforts to recruit more firefighters, with a focus on improving the department’s diversity and representation of local communities.
Sherese Gamble is the agency’s new diversity and workforce development manager. She was previously a consultant for South King Fire prior to being hired for her new role this summer.
The next fire academy starts in February, so the recruitment drive is on, from social media to back-to-school events. At the same time, Gamble is helping the department keep the firefighters it already has.
So what does that look like in practice?
One is removing barriers to hiring. Fire agencies, especially in coveted markets, can develop reputations for “legacy” hires — essentially selecting new recruits from those who already have a sibling or parent in the service. When you have a family member who can prep you for hiring tests and introduce you to the other department members, you have a big advantage, she said.
There is value in legacy, Gamble said. It can build camaraderie and strengthen community ties. But it’s a balancing act. The agency plans to make more opportunities for mentorship in the community, like ride-a-longs. The agency also plans to walk would-be recruits through the testing and hiring process, so those recruits know what to expect and can enjoy a similar level of access to the department as someone who grew up around it.
“Being able to share the work that we do … in day-to-day real time is really powerful,” Gamble said. “What is a day in the life of a South King firefighter? What do we value? How do we show up?”
Another big change: Reducing the testing cost to apply for the department to below $30. At some agencies, would-be recruits can pay as much as $300 just to take the test, Gamble said.
Gamble said there is a fledgling movement in the fire service to talk about trauma, stress, mental health and the intense emotional effects the work can bear on firefighters and EMTs. Gamble holds a master’s degree in psychology and has worked for nearly a decade as a therapist, so this is a topic near and dear to her.
A mentorship program, which will match new firefighters with more seasoned recruits, is under development, Gamble said. The good news: The availability of resources for first responders in the area is “huge,” Gamble said. The job ahead, she said, is to make it feel like a normal thing for firefighters to use those resources.
“They are giving that support to their community so often that we need to refill their cups,” she said. “As a firefighter, you show up best for your community when you have a full cup.”
The department will focus on more community outreach in order to recruit from a wider pool of applicants. A more diverse pool of firefighters — in terms of ethnicity, gender, language — can speak more languages, understand more conditions, and inspire more kids to be firefighters in future generations, she said.
One of those efforts is coming up next month: “Future Women in EMS/Fire” workshop, which aims to help women interested in an emergency medical work or firefighting career learn more about the service through discussions, panels and hands-on demonstrations. The free program will involve more than a dozen King County agencies.
Applicants must be at least 18 years old, and residents of King County are preferred. The workshop takes place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 22 and 23. You can apply by visiting https://bit.ly/SKFRFWIEF and sending in an application by Sept. 30. For questions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organizer Jenny Shin is a program manager at King County EMS. Less than 10% of the EMS/Fire workforce are women, Shin said, and the workshop is a chance to help women learn to navigate that gender gap and be set for success.
“For the attendees, this is an opportunity to build confidence, feel empowered, be able to ask questions and learn in an intimidation-free safe space,” Shin wrote in an email. “The magic behind a workshop specifically for women is it provides a space to talk about any and all subjects openly, which is not always possible when navigating career options.”
Instructors will give a behind-the-scenes look on navigating testing, hiring and the recruit academy, and be able to grow the local network of women firefighters and paramedics. Plus, they’ll go over the mechanical differences a female body — or any body type — might mean for new recruits.
“Many pieces of equipment, drills, and techniques used in EMS/Fire have been tailored to one specific body type,” Shin explained. The physical standards of the job are the same for men and women, but many women can approach tasks differently with “techniques that still complete the task successfully, but are executed slightly differently utilizing the mechanics of the female body for its strengths,” she said.
When a woman in the community is going through a traumatic event and needs help, having someone respond who can relate to them makes a difference, Shin said.
It’s about empowering women to work well alongside other men and women in the service, she said, and not “to lift up women at the expense of putting any other group down.”
Traditionally, the fire service has been a “boys club,” Shin said, and that won’t go away overnight. But the perception is slowly changing and the workshop was created to help that process. Shin recommends those interested in the field to visit departments, meet the crews, ask about their culture and find one that feels like the right fit for their values.
“While few and far between, historically there have been women in the fire service that have helped paved the way for our current and future women firefighters,” she said.