Firefighter recruiting goes high-tech in Urbana

Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson

By Jim Shay

Facebook request: “Urbana Firefighter” wants to be your friend.

Would you like to become a firefighter? Choose: “Accept” or “Decline.”

The Urbana Fire Department has found new ways to ask old recruitment questions, including through popular social networking Web sites, as the city’s search for a new crop of candidates draws to a close this week.

Division Chief Tony Foster, a member of the recruitment team, cited “lots of hits” on the new MySpace and Facebook pages – encouraging results for a department targeting the 18 to 34-year-old age bracket.

“It really does put that perspective out there when people go to our Web site and they can link something to their likeness and understanding,” Foster said.

Every two years, the Civil Service Commission of Urbana requires the fire department to administer firefighter tests in order to build the eligibility register. When a firefighter retires or is killed in the line of duty, the register allows for a proper replacement.

But fueling the department’s modernized and expanded effort is what Foster called a need for greater diversity among candidates – something the recruitment process has tended to lack.

“In the past what we’ve done is always went after just the traditional candidate. We’ve hoped that people of color, or minorities, being females, not traditional candidates would just come our way, and studies have shown that does not happen,” Foster said.

A series of open houses in the area provided people the opportunity to meet current firefighters and learn more about the occupation.

Tuesday’s event at the Holiday Inn in Urbana found Ray Bey, 20, among the guests mingling with members of the department, though it wasn’t the prestige or excitement of the job that drew his interest.

“I’m a pre-med student trying to find some extra money,” Bey said. “I just thought why not try to see if there’s a part time job.”

As far as reaching the female population, firefighter and department recruiter Rhonda Overtonexplained it is useful to take a different approach to the process and stressed the job is not completely dependent on physical strength.

“Don’t talk numbers to us, don’t talk salaries, I want to know that I’m going to be able to help children, save lives,” Overton said. “There’s a myth out there that this job is so unattainable or it’s so hard physically that women can’t do it. Three percent of all career firefighters are women. Three percent. So we want to boost those numbers up.”

Foster and the recruitment team drew on a study performed by the International Association of Firefighters outlining how to attract more diversity for departments.

Female firefighters were dispatched to local fitness centers to seek out women to take the test, while the firefighters also targeted non-traditional candidates at a trio of churches in the area, which responded well to the recruiting efforts.

So far the department is seeing a record number of applicants with more than 250 people scheduled to take the next firefighter test, forcing it to hold two separate test sessions at the Carle Forum.

Entering the “last week of push,” Foster called the response “awesome” and “exciting,” as the department prepares to wrap up almost a month’s worth of recruiting.

“It shows that our efforts are panning out,” Foster said. “We’re going to look at the pool once we’re ready to go and we’ll be able to hire off that list. So that’s our goal, we just have to get people there, that’s the idea.”