Jacob Britt knew he wanted to be a firefighter when he was 4 years old, following in his father’s footsteps.
The Oakwood man participated in the Hall County Fire Services Explorer Program, which shows 14- to 20-year-olds what being a firefighter is like, and now he’s training for the job as part of recruit class 49.
But much has changed with new generations like his. Fire Chief Chris Armstrong is working to adapt the department to those changes and better equip new recruits for the job, as well as make the path easier for more experienced firefighters.
The department was “falling short” in recruitment when Armstrong took the lead job a year ago, he said.
In 2017, firefighters were leaving the department faster than the department could replace them. There were 53 hires and 70 terminations that year, according to Hall’s human resources director Bill Moats.
In 2018, there were 59 hires and 59 terminations.
When Armstrong took the top job in October 2018, there were 22 vacancies in operations for firefighter/EMTs and paramedics. Now, there are five firefighter spots open, Moats said.
Armstrong estimated a normal attrition rate for an organization such as Hall County Fire Services would be 30 terminations, or roughly 10%.
Armstrong attacked the problem in multiple ways.
Training a new generation of recruits
Explorers like Britt have some idea of what to expect as a firefighter, but some 50-60% of many recruit classes fail.
“I got to ride along with the guys and got to experience shift life for 12 hours a day, and that’s the biggest thing that got me to where I am now,” Britt said.
Many new recruits “have no idea what it means to be a firefighter,” Armstrong said.
“We find out that some of them are claustrophobic. They don’t like wearing the mask. They don’t like the dark. Physically, they can’t do the job,” he said. “... These are people that are just saying, ‘I want to try being a firefighter.’ Some of them make it through. Some of them don’t.”
They were also coming into a paramilitary organization with boot camp-style training.
“There’s a lot of yelling and screaming to motivate people, and I’m a big believer that doesn’t always motivate people,” Armstrong said. “I wanted to do it different. It wasn’t a practice that was unique to Hall County. It’s something that’s been adopted in the fire service for decades, but it’s also something that I believe needs to be changed.
“We’re seeing a different generation of people coming through, and we have to acknowledge that and find different ways to train them to help them be successful,” he said.
Now, when a new recruit class shows up, the department sends out a request to employees about being a mentor.
“Our philosophy is that on day one when you put the patch on your shoulder, you’re part of our family. We’re going to bend over backwards to help you succeed,” Armstrong said.
These mentors and mentees swap phone numbers and connect as often as they need.
A fast-track for the more experienced
Armstrong said the conversations also started right away about how to change the way certified recruit classes are handled, particularly after hearing from some at Lanier Technical College’s paramedicine program.
“They had mentioned that they would like the opportunity to work for Hall County, but they didn’t want to go through 18 weeks of training. That’s where I kind of got my wheels spinning and said, ‘Well, if somebody’s certified, why would they need to go through 18 weeks?’” Armstrong said.
This plan was buttressed with the arrival of training chief Kevin Johnson, who retired from DeKalb County Fire and Rescue and brought with him roughly 35 years of experience.
Hall County looked at ways to reduce the 18-week program to a third of the time, focused on policies, procedures and checking firefighting skills.
“With the certified applicants, we’re dealing with more knowns than unknowns,” Hall’s Capt. Zach Brackett said. “I know they have been exposed to the fire service. I know that they’re used to being in turnout gear. I know that they have at some point passed a standardized test.”
When the six-week training program was rolled out, Tommy Nail, 44, of Flowery Branch, was one of those experienced firefighters who jumped at the opportunity.
Nail had roughly 23 years under his belt and wasn’t interested in taking fire rookie school for the third time, though he was looking for a better department.
His career started in Florida, where he lived in the county where he worked.
“I really liked that aspect — kind of felt some ownership in the community. Moving up here I kind of got away from that,” Nail said.
Nail was one of the graduates of Hall County’s first fast-track class, which had almost a perfect success rate with 13 of the 14 graduating. The last person from the class was injured and is still in training.
“Some of the things we’re avoiding here, other agencies I’ve worked for were victims of it — taking certified people and just putting them through a brand-new class. That wasn’t really grabbing their expertise and their energy,” Johnson said.
Picking up this many certified employees in six weeks saves the county time and money, as the fast-track class included four people who were already EMT-certified and one paramedic, Armstrong said.
“Not only did we get people that were fire-certified, but we also got people that we can put right on a med unit … and put them to work. That’s a huge advantage for our organization and for our service delivery,” Armstrong said.
EMT training is also now done differently, with firefighters starting shifts after initial training and then going through yearlong EMT school on their off days rather than taking a condensed 20-week full-time course.
Armstrong said he considers recruitment one of the big accomplishments in his first year at the helm.
“I knew coming in we wanted to do something with recruiting and hiring, and I think we were really successful in that,” he said. “Implementing the fast-track program and being able to attract and hire certified employees and get them on trucks and operational in six weeks to the nearly 40 weeks we were taking previously is quite a significant accomplishment.”
Training to lead and looking toward the future
From the bottom of the totem pole to the top, Armstrong also took 13 chief officers on a three-day leadership and performance academy, where they received fire chief-level training. Some 30-year veterans of the department told Armstrong this was some of the first training they had ever received.
“I think a lot of what has been accomplished this year is changing the way that we think about things and helping us understand that the way we’ve done things — not that it’s necessarily been wrong — but there’s other ways to do those things. Chief Armstrong has brought a different perspective to how we do things day in and day out,” Brackett said.
Training continues for Britt, who recently completed a strenuous physical course meant to push recruits to their limits.
He said he is most looking forward to live burn training.
While preparing to work out in full gear at the training facility, a kid approached from the neighboring soccer complex and told Britt and fellow recruit Amanda Hitchcock of Flowery Branch he was inspired.
“That was just really great to hear,” Hitchcock said.