FORT WAYNE – For months now, the Fort Wayne Fire Department has been running prospective firefighters through a marathon of tests and interviews, with the aim of narrowing a field of more than 900 applicants to just 15.
The huge response to the department’s hiring push this year is not unusual. In 2008, the last time the department hired firefighters, it received 663 applications.
I think that a lot of people have figured out that it’s a very satisfying, rewarding career, said Assistant Chief Chris Mounsey, who is coordinating the hiring process.
So far, the fire department has whittled the list of applicants to 20, and it expects to have the final 15 chosen by mid-December.
That group would start a 17-week training academy in early January.
Mounsey said that compared with the 2008 class of recruits, this year’s applicants are in superior shape and have done better on the agility test. They also have a good deal of experience. About 75 percent have earned firefighting degrees or spent time as volunteer or professional firefighters.
You can tell that they’re focused on a fire service career, she said.
A firefighter recruit’s salary is $44,121. A firefighter spends his or her first year on probation, and afterward the salary jumps to $49,024 a year.
Like the fire department, the city’s police department is in the final stages of selecting a class of 22 officers from at least 600 applicants. Those 22 will bring the number of officers to 450. At this point, the class, which begins a 20-week academy in February, will consist of four white women, two black men, one Hispanic man and 15 white men, police said.
Police officers earn $43,256 during their probationary year. Afterward, a patrol officer earns $48,062 a year, which can fluctuate with bonuses for taking second or third shifts.
The 15 new firefighters will join a fire department staff that, until now, has dwindled through attrition in recent years. With the new hires, the department will have 353 firefighters. The maximum number of firefighters the department can have is 375, fire officials said.
Starting in July, the fire department received 928 online applications. All candidates had to be high school graduates between 21 and 35 years old and have no felonies on their records.
Of those who submitted applications, 628 showed up at Memorial Coliseum on Aug. 3 to take a written exam.
The 540 applicants who scored high enough on the written exam were interviewed by two panels of fire officials. Emerging from that process were 240, who later took an agility test. They had 10 minutes, 20 seconds to hustle through eight stations, each with a feat to accomplish such as dragging a hose, raising a ladder or forcing open a door.
For those who passed the agility test – 216 applicants – fire officials averaged their scores from the written exam and panel interviews. By taking the highest averages and giving preference to applicants with military experience, the department arrived at the list of 20 it has now. Five of the 20 have a military background.
When city officials announced in July that the fire department would be hiring 15 firefighters, Chief Amy Biggs said her department’s goal was to find well-rounded, qualified recruits from diverse cultural backgrounds.
On Friday, Biggs said the remaining group’s diversity is indicative of the makeup of the applicant pool: 17 white men, a white woman, a black man and an Asian man.
I think we’re satisfied with the numbers that we have. We would always like them to be greater than that, she said. Obviously, we’d love for our department to reflect our community.
The 20 candidates had to pass an acrophobia test by climbing to the top of an aerial ladder and climbing back down, as well as a claustrophobia test by staying put in a dark, 10-by-10-foot room for a minute before finding their way out while wearing a blacked-out breathing mask.
It’s just to make sure that they don’t freak out because they have the mask on, Mounsey said. It’s obviously a vital piece of equipment for us.
The 20 candidates must undergo a psychological evaluation and a physical, and they have to receive approval from the state pension board and the city fire merit commission. If all 20 clear those hurdles, the department will take the 15 with the highest average scores from the written exam and panel interviews.
In June, the City Council approved an increase in the local income tax that will pay for most of the $1.2 million needed to hire 15 firefighters.
Jeff Wiehe of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.