Firefighting jobs increasingly in demand in Alaska

Firefighting jobs increasingly in demand in Alaska

01 July 2016

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USA — If you’re smart, brave, and physically fit, firefighting may be an apt career move since firefighters are in demand across Alaska.

The number of Firefighters in Alaska has doubled to almost 1,800 since 2001, according to a new report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Although new firefighting jobs have been created, job vacancies continue to open as firefighters leave for greener pastures.

The Fairbanks Fire Department added one position in 2008, with the help of a grant, to bring staff shift numbers up from 12 to 13. In 2013, the Fairbanks City Council made the change permanent, according to fire chief Jim Styers. Styers said a full staff would have 39 firefighters in all, but there are only 35 firefighters right now.

Styers said competitive payscales and benefits have been luring firefighters to other departments in Alaska and the Lower 48.

“In the last several years, we’ve only had one employee make the five-year mark,” Styers said, “and he only worked a day beyond that.”

The fire department is getting busier, too.

In 2006, Fairbanks Fire received 3,500 calls, and Styers said the department is on track to receive 4,000 calls this year.

“It’s a lot busier than it used to be. The population is getting older, and we have more medical calls with more medical facilities in the area,” Styers said. “We used to be able to keep people on staff. We’re seeing more turnover.”

The firefighters are keeping up with calls, Styers said, but mutual aid — when local fire departments help respond to calls in neighboring areas to help each other — is being used more than in the past.

Styers said adding another position to the firefighting staff is something he’s considering, but it takes a long time to process and would need to be approved by the city’s human resources department, the finance committee, and would then need to be approved in the annual budget by the city council.

The North Pole Fire Department doubled its minimum staffing number,

from two to four, over the last decade, but, like Fairbanks, it isn’t retaining firefighters like it used too.

“We are seeing an increase (in calls) across the board, including medical calls. We hired the extra staff to offest the overtime load,” said North Pole Fire Chief Buddy Lane.

Lane said his department is looking to fill one firefighter position.

Working for a wildland fire crew can be a gamble.

“It’s totally dependent on the year. Last year we burned up 5.1 million acres in Alaska and brought up crews from the Lower 48 because we didn’t have enough firefighters to deal with the fires on the landscape,” said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the Alaska Divison of Forestry’s fire services. “But it’s been raining, and there’s less fire (this year). You’re taking a chance on the job. If there’s a big fire it’s a lucrative deal.”

According to Mowry, there are about 1,170 wildland firefighters employed between Forestry and the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service.

The Alaska Fire Service employs 70 smokejumpers, two hotshot crews, and one type-II crew — which does a lot of the clean up work — along with 36 fire specialists.

Forestry and the Alaska Fire Service also employ 780 firefighters on 39 emergency crews around the state. Most of these emergency crews are located in villages.

“A lot of the crews come out of villages because there (aren’t) a lot of ways to make money there,” Mowry said.

Because the 2015 fire season was devastating, Mowry said there was a lot of interest in joining emergency crews this year. Only six of the 39 crews have been utilized. Last year, all 39 crews were used, some were deployed five times.

“That’s the way the fire business goes,” Mowry said. “You can’t predict it. If you’re an (emergency crew) you’re banking on a fire, literally.”

Mowry said the wildland firefighting positions are filled for the season, and they will begin hiring again next spring.

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