Amy Biggs was looking for a different career in 1995 when she took the physical agility test in hopes of becoming a firefighter.
Biggs, 25 at the time and working in customer service for a Grabill furniture maker, was one of about 600 people hoping to become a Fort Wayne firefighter. She qualified for one of 19 spots.
And she was the only woman.
I had no knowledge of what it was about, she said of the fire service. (But) they mold you, they train you and you become a firefighter. Now I’m fire chief.
Her example is one she would love to see repeated.
The Fort Wayne fire and police departments are each in the midst of a months-long recruitment process. Each department hopes to get about 1,000 applicants, totals that will be culled to between 25 and 30 people for the next academy classes, slated to start in the spring.
Officials said this seems to be the biggest effort by both the police and fire departments to create a diverse applicant pool, which they hope will lead to a diverse group of new officers and fire fighters
Both departments said they’ve always used their employees, advertisements and word of mouth to get word out to the community when they were hiring.
When Michelle Nelson was considering applying for the fire department, she called up one of the city’s fire stations and asked questions about how to apply. That was 13 years ago and she was the only woman and one of three black candidates in her Fort Wayne Fire Academy class of 28 recruits.
It was very noticeable, she said. It did not affect me, but I felt a little lonely. I felt like I had to work extra hard to get through the academy. I knew that this is what I wanted to do and nothing was going to stop me.
Nelson said she became a firefighter because she always wanted to give back to her community.
Now she’s helping recruit other potential firefighters.
I wanted to make sure we recruited a class that was qualified and was representative of our community, Nelson said. I wanted to make sure that we got the word out to the community so people can come learn more about the fire service. If this is something you want to do, then meet us halfway.
To help spread the word, the fire department distributed promotional posters with pictures of women and other minorities; created a Facebook page; and is meeting with civic and community organizations geared toward women and minorities.
Public Information Officer Stacey Fleming said she has talked to three Burmese women about applying to the department.
I don’t think we’ve gotten into those communities to tell people firefighting is an option, Fleming said referring to the Burmese women. Recruitment – it’s planting the seed.
Biggs said the fire department would accept applications beginning in September.
It’s going to be a highly competitive process, Biggs said. It’s a highly pursued-after career.
That process includes six months of written and physical testing, followed by intensive background checks, psychological exams and panel interviews.
About 25 will qualify for the 22-week fire academy.
The police department has a more meticulous round of background checks and psychological exams.
You don’t want any surprises, Deputy Chief Dottie Davis said. It’s important to look at someone’s past behavior. It’s usually a good indicator of future behavior.
Davis said potential applicants for the police department don’t need to know all the laws on the books.
We don’t test them on the laws because they haven’t had that training yet, Davis said. Right now we want to see what their communication skills are.
Roughly 30 people will qualify for the police academy, which lasts 20 weeks. Applications are due Sept. 28.
There have been 427 applications received as of July 18, Davis said. Of those, 408 completed an affirmative action questionnaire that gauges the race, gender and ethnicity of those applying. Davis said 15.5 percent who have applied are women, 5 percent of applicants are Hispanic, 18.5 percent are black, 2 percent are Asian, less than 1 percent are American Indian and less than 1 percent self-identified as other.
I think that’s pretty representative of our community, if not even a little higher, Davis said.
The numbers lead Davis to believe the department’s effort to reach the entire community is paying off.
Kayla Matous said she fell in love with Fort Wayne when she would visit family and spend her summers here.
Matous lives in Liberal, Kan., and said she works as a corrections officer at the Seward County Jail while she works to complete her bachelor’s degree.
She is thinking about applying with the Fort Wayne Police Department.
I have always dreamed about moving to Fort Wayne and being a police officer there, Matous wrote in an email to The Journal Gazette. I have always enjoyed the atmosphere in Fort Wayne and have always wanted to move there. The Fort Wayne Police Department also pays, on average, more than a Kansas police department.
The Fort Wayne Police Department also attracts me because there could be a possibility of advancement to detective.