Before joining Huntsville Fire & Rescue (HFR), Stephanie Pinto wanted to be a college professor.
The UAH history alumna realized after graduation that she didn’t want to sit behind a desk. She wanted something that was more physically challenging and exciting.
“I grew up playing sports and I missed that,” she said. “This seemed like the perfect scenario for me career-wise.”
HFR employs hundreds of firefighters across Huntsville. Despite the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce, very few new recruits are women or minorities.
That’s a problem. Without diversifying, Division Chief Wesley Ogle said the department does not fully represent the culture, language or beliefs of our City.
“I grew up in a certain way and you grew up in a certain way,” he said. “The more points of view we can bring into the team, the better understanding we can have of what the community’s needs and traditions are. That will better equip us to be able to serve the community.”
The numbers are telling
In 2018, there were approximately 1.1 million career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S., according to data from the National Fire Protection Association. Of those firefighters, only 8 percent were women. More than half – 60 percent – were white.
Pinto, hired by HFR in 2011, is one of only four women who work for the fire department. While some residents are surprised to see her driving a fire truck, Pinto said the younger generation doesn’t view it as strange at all.
When you have the diversity in this kind of career and the kids see it, the people see it, it stops looking unusual.”
Her nephews, both under the age of 10, have only known their aunt as a firefighter.
“It’s not weird to them,” she said. “It’s important for the community and for the kids to see that. When you have the diversity in this kind of career and the kids see it, the people see it, it stops looking unusual.”
HFR recently opened applications for its 2021 Academy, which only comes available every 18 months. For those interested in a secure and energizing career, it’s a great opportunity to join the City’s team of highly specialized professionals in support of public safety.
Think the fire department is just about putting out fires? Think again.
“That’s all people see, but there’s so much more that we do,” Ogle said. “There’s so much more to the emergency response and the services we provide.”
Fire & Rescue work includes fire suppression, prevention, emergency lifesaving and rescue services. It’s an inherently dangerous career that requires strenuous physical exertion under emergency conditions such as extreme heat, confined spaces, contaminated environments and infectious disease.
Firefighting may not be appealing to everyone, but Ogle said the job gets easier with experience.
“Most people are not naturally programmed to take that kind of risk, but as you start to work with the team and realize you’re working with a group of professionals, that takes most of the concern and danger out of your mind,” he said.
When Ogle joined the fire department in 2001, there were more than 1,200 applicants and 22 available jobs. In 2019, HFR hired 30 new firefighters out of 364 applicants – a significant drop from 20 years ago.
They hope to have a larger candidate pool this year to ensure HFD adequately reflects the demographics and needs of the community.
“Our skillsets are so varied,” Ogle said. “You might go from fighting a fire one minute to leaving that scene and hanging off a 100-foot cliff from a rope, trying to get somebody out of a precarious situation, the next.”
The process of becoming a firefighter takes about six months from start to finish. In addition to a civil service exam, applicants must pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), which measures their ability to handle the physical demands of being a firefighter.
HFR gives candidates three chances to pass the CPAT. After that, an interview with the applicant helps to determine whether the City wants to make an offer.
Ogle said one of the biggest mistakes people make is not finishing the application process.
“We had 364 applicants last year,” he said. “Only 75 of them made it to the interview and a lot of those dropped out because they missed a step in the process somewhere along the way.”
Like a family
Just like a family, HFR looks after each other. Ogle said everyone knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses and performs like a true, well-oiled machine.
HFR has several employees who have been with the agency over 40 years.
“It’s a very, very tight family unit and people just don’t want to leave that,” Ogle said. “It’s like leaving your family.”
When you come into this family, we have to know we can rely on you to be there when you’re needed.”
Those interested in applying need self-regulation and a strong work ethic to succeed, Pinto said.
“You’ve got to be prepared, disciplined and willing to learn because no two situations are the same,” she said.
Ogle agrees. He said honesty, integrity, compassion and commitment are necessary to do this job well.
“Massage those core values and show truly that you do have integrity and can be relied on,” he said. “When you come into this family, we have to know we can rely on you to be there when you’re needed.”
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