Flagstaff Fire Department works to meet demands of a changing city while overcoming recruitment challenges

Sierra Ferguson

The Flagstaff Fire Department is working to meet the needs of a rapidly changing city while facing some unprecedented constraints. That’s according to Chief Mark Gaillard of the Flagstaff and Summit fire departments.The core problem: Flagstaff is growing, but the pool of people interested in becoming firefighters isn’t.“We have seen call volumes that were exponentially increasing. If we benchmark ourselves against other communities in the state, we have some of the busiest firehouses in Arizona,” Gaillard said.In 2012, Flagstaff Fire Department (FFD) responded to 10,117 incidents. Ten years later, it responded to 15,778 — a 64% increase.As call volumes continue to trend upward, the sheer volume of motorists on the road has increased, too. According to Gaillard, that hasn’t necessarily meant fire crews are responding to more crashes, but traffic still impacts the fire service.

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“Moving across town can be difficult as a commuter; it’s no different when you have lights and sirens on your vehicle. It takes longer. We’re very concerned about congestion as well,” he said.In addition to congestion, Gaillard said, the growing community is facing new risks. In meeting demands for housing, particularly off-campus housing for college students, Flagstaff has been growing up rather than out.“The community is a mountain town that doesn’t have a lot of spaces for development, so you’re starting to see kind of an influx of high-rise residential [buildings]. Typically that’s been in support of the growth of the university, of off-campus housing,” he said, adding that taller buildings pose higher risks.For fire departments, every building that reaches farther into the sky creates new challenges in the event of an emergency — such as utilizing ladder trucks and added personnel.“That is another thing that drives staffing needs: our necessity to staff ladder trucks,” Gaillard said, adding that the demand for service near Station No. 1, along the Milton coordinate, means Flagstaff will eventually need to add an addition rescue truck to its fleet.If FFD added two fully staffed ladder trucks and a new rescue truck to the department fleet, that would represent an 80% increase in the number of firefighters on shift every day.“Currently, Flagstaff has one battalion chief. That battalion chief is overseeing eight companies. They’re spread kind of thin. We’re a little past due with our necessity to add a second battalion chief to split that administrative and response workload,” said Gaillard.There are currently 10 open positions between the Summit, Highlands and Flagstaff fire departments.Filling those vacancies, Gaillard said, has never been more difficult.“I’ve been in the fire service over 40 years,” he said. “We’ve never had a problem finding people to come and work. We’re seeing really declining numbers of applicants for positions as firefighters. We’re having to really rethink what it looks like to recruit, what it looks like to train firefighters and prepare them for the work.”Gaillard said he received 30 applications for those 10 positions that are open. In years past, he said, he could count on seeing closer to 100 applications per vacancy. As the local fire service conducts final interviews, it has narrowed the candidate pool to just 13 people.“[Those are] great odds if you’re an applicant. If you’re an employer, you kind of go, ‘I really wish we could see more people and have a larger pool of applicants to look at,’” he said. “All I really need to do is find 10 really committed people who want to join us in our mission and in our service.”Gaillard insists that he remains dedicated to finding dedicated people, but says that now regional competition for the finest first responders is steep.When larger departments experience normal attrition, such as firefighters aging out of the business, multiple positions will often open at around the same time. To fill openings, such departments are often well-positioned to attract firefighters who are working in places like Flagstaff.“In Flagstaff, we have lost firefighters to the Valley, where it’s cheaper to live typically,” Gaillard said. “Some of the big drivers [of attrition] are the wage and the affordability of the community to live here. Those are real issues our folks deal with. We hire tremendous people, and pretty quickly we subject them to some pretty rigorous living demands.”Gaillard said he’s felt that city leadership has tried to help support the fire service in being as competitive as possible regionally.“The City of Flagstaff has done a wonderful job the last several years making sure that the workforce here is competitive. We’ve made it so much better and they’ve made it a priority to continue to do that. That’s certainly helping,” he said.’It’s still a great job’Enrollment in regional firefighter training academies has been declining,  according to Gaillard. In the last few years, classes just haven’t been filling up.“That is an industry-wide phenomenon. Flagstaff is not alone in that, but it is somewhat exacerbated when you think about. As we all know, Flagstaff is a difficult town to find housing. If you can, it’s expensive,” he said. “It’s no small thing to take a job in our community and find housing and be successful and thrive.”Flagstaff has been a relatively costly place to live for decades, so Gaillard wonders if there could be other reasons why it’s difficult to find young people who are eager to don turn-outs and face down burning buildings.“A lot of people entering the workforce today maybe finished high school from home during the pandemic, so we wonder if our schedule, which has been a source of attraction for many applicants, maybe the newer generation finds it difficult to imagine being at work that long? We don’t know, but we’re scratching our heads trying to figure it out. It’s still a great job,” Gaillard said.He said there just isn’t enough data to account for completely for the nationwide drop in academy enrollment.“Certainly we saw some real difficulties with our law enforcement partners as far as recruitment, and we saw social unrest in the nation that kind of led to some of those,” Gaillard said. “Shortly on the heels of that, we began to experience an influx, a reduction in applications. It became noticeable for us, but we weren’t worried. We still had plenty of applications, right? Now we’re experiencing the kind of recruitment challenges that our law enforcement brothers and sisters have been dealing with for a long time. They’re looking at us like, ‘This is our world.’”In the meantime, Gaillard said, the fire service has partnered with other public safety stakeholders to craft solutions to personnel shortages. He pointed to the formation of the CARE Unit, which aims to provide a form of first response that differed significantly from older models.The CARE Unit is dispatched in a white van rather than a fire truck. It’s staffed by an EMT or firefighter EMT, and mental health professionals. They respond to nonemergency situations, instances like “man-down calls” — which are made when a person appears to have passed out or fallen asleep in public.“One of the real stated goals of that is we’re trying to send a different unit to calls that really aren’t emergencies. We’re able to send a different unit, and it takes some of that stress off the emergency service providers and the police officers. The firefighters and police officers who in some of those nonemergency situations aren’t really the best tool,” Gaillard said. “We definitely are trying to do some creative things to affect that, but we’re still very, very busy.”Sometimes, Gaillard said, the community needs fully trained and prepared firefighters. To make sure there are plenty of people to respond when calls come in, he said, the fire department just needs to keep learning and adjusting their recruiting strategy.“I believe that there are people out there that want to serve others. I think they’re out there, but we’re having to rethink how we train them — maybe a little bit of what does it look like to come to work? We’ve got a little bit of work to do, we can’t just do it like we’ve always done it,” Gaillard said. “We’re real proud to get to serve this community and we’ll just keep plugging away.”
Sierra Ferguson can be reached at sierra.ferguson@lee.net.


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