The Charleston Fire Department is taking applications for firefighter trainees this month, and it’s a good deal.
Anyone who’s accepted is put on the city payroll while they go through a six-month academy that trains and certifies them not only to fight fires, but also to deliver emergency medical services. Because that’s a big part of what firefighters do these days.
Kevin Weeks, a 24-year fire department veteran who most recently served as a battalion chief on Daniel Island, wants to make sure everyone knows about this opportunity. And he means everyone.
“We want everybody to see somebody who looks like them in the department, to give everyone that hope and that encouragement that they could be a firefighter,” Weeks says.
He is in the perfect position to spread that message. Weeks was recently appointed the department’s first recruitment and diversity manager, and Charleston Fire Chief Dan Curia says he’s the right man for the job because of his tenure, experience and longtime recognition of the problem.
“Our fire department does fantastic work, and we have fantastic people,” Curia says. “But we don’t accurately reflect the community we serve. Every child who sees a firetruck going down the street, I want them to think I can do that, and they want me to do that.”
Curia says that’s not only the right thing to do; it builds better relations with residents. And that’s important, particularly among firefighters. Because their entire job is about saving the lives of those residents.
This focus on minority recruitment will no doubt be popular with Mayor John Tecklenburg, City Council and civil rights leaders — all of whom have lamented the fire department’s lack of diversity. More than 90% of the city’s firefighters are white men.
That’s a stark statistic, but it’s the norm in fire stations across the country. Nationwide, fewer than 8% of firefighters are African American; in the Charleston Fire Department, only 5% of firefighters are black. The same surveys find that women comprise less than 5% of firefighters nationally. In Charleston, only 4% of firefighters are female.
Curia says the department is committed to increasing diversity across the board — more women, more African Americans. He says the national struggle with firefighter diversity has historically come down to access. Many people simply don’t know the opportunities that are out there.
And that’s where Weeks comes in.
The first step to addressing the disparity, Weeks says, is knowledge. He plans to spread the word, get information about how to become a firefighter out to the community — to let all people know that a lack of experience is no obstacle to a career in firefighting.
The average person has no idea how that works. Which is probably why, in the past, you so often saw one generation after another of the same families working in fire stations.
Weeks explains that anyone with a high school degree can apply. If you pass a physical and background check, you have a good chance of being accepted into the academy.
Charleston operates its own certified training academy, which helps local recruits tremendously. No one has to relocate or travel, and since they’re paid to do it, trainees don’t have to juggle another job. That makes a career in firefighting a much more attainable goal.
The pay isn’t bad, either. An academy recruit with a high school degree starts at more than $34,000; after a year of service, the minimum salary rises to $43,000. Recruits with associate or bachelor’s degrees earn thousands more. And all firefighters receive health insurance and accrue state retirement benefits, which are also worth a good bit.
It’s a career that plants folks firmly in the middle class. That’s good for the firefighter and good for the city.
“This is a good and necessary initiative,” says Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell, a member of council’s Public Safety Committee. “It provides important opportunities that will help ensure our fire department reflects the diversity of our community.”
Weeks is passionate about recruiting people who might not otherwise know that a career in firefighting is even a possibility for them. And that will eventually change the Charleston Fire Department for the better.
He says such monumental change doesn’t happen overnight, but half the battle is recognizing and addressing the problem.
“This shows the kind of leadership we have at the Charleston Fire Department. The chief saw a need and acted on it,” Weeks says. “It’s going to be a slow process, but we do believe we can do this.”