Volunteer fire departments are facing a shrinking number of firefighters and smaller career departments are finding it increasingly difficult to compete for the pool of candidates.
North Texas is growing and so are fire departments to keep up with growth. While the demand is high, the supply is not. Career departments like Burleson are competing with larger cities with bigger budgets.
That’s one reason why a nearly 20-year-old youth program has taken on added importance.
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While many kids would spend a hot North Texas day inside, over the past month, more than 40 Burleson children put on miniature firefighter gear for a firsthand look at firefighting as a part of the Junior Academy.
“I think the big deal is getting kids out here and showing them what we are all about in the fire service,” firefighter Brandon Jacobs said.
Firefighting is one of those jobs you dream of as a child. The challenge is keeping that passion throughout youth and into adulthood.
“We try and do a lot of recruiting. Starting early is one of them obviously,” Assistant Chief Brent Batla said. “The most difficult part is finding the qualified candidates.”
The youngsters learn to use a fire hose, work as a team and also learn important lessons on fire and water safety. When they leave for the day, they’ll have a better idea of what goes into being a firefighter in their hometown.
“I think they are learning that there is a lot more to it than just fighting fire,” firefighter Dennis Koslowski said.
Many firefighters also serve in a paramedic role. It’s a combination that actually makes finding firefighters even more difficult.
“With every city in North Texas hiring and looking for that combination, it’s quite competitive. Kind of tough to fill those positions,” Batla said.
“They get snapped up so quick. If they’ve got a clean record and they are a firefighter/paramedic, every department is looking for that and there just aren’t enough to go around,” Batla added.
While Burleson Fire Department is no longer a volunteer department, Batla started his fire service career years ago in a volunteer role. He understands why volunteer departments are being hit so hard.
“It’s a big problem all over,” he said. “With so many people having to work so many hours and [are] so busy just making ends meet, it’s hard to get people to commit to so much.”
The Junior Academy seems to work because it makes children passionate about their hometown department. Jacobs, now an instructor, is proof. When he was in 5th grade, he went through the same training he teaches now.
“It’s a very special thing for me to come out here and do for these kids what guys did for me,” he said. “There is like an 18 year [part] of my life where this is all that I wanted to do and everything I did was to end up here.”