Independence, Brecksville fire chiefs discuss decrease in applicants

by Sara Hill

Why has the number of applicants decreased at fire departments around Ohio?

“This is a question that is being discussed frequently during county fire chief and state fire chief association meetings and I believe one contributing factor is a result of the impact of COVID,” said Brecksville Fire Chief Nick Zamiska.

Zamiska, a fourth-generation firefighter, has been a member of the Brecksville Fire Department for 20 years and chief for the last five. While his department has maintained staffing levels, others in the region have not.

According to a article published June 2, the number of candidates seeking jobs has dropped dramatically in cities not only across Northeast Ohio but also nationwide.

“Many of the career centers and community colleges postponed their fire academies and paramedic programs during the pandemic,” Zamiska said. “While some of the curriculum in these programs is lecture-based, a significant portion includes hands-on, in-person training and exercises. During a recent county fire chief’s meeting, a local community college reported good enrollment numbers for the current fire academy class.”

Advanced certifications and continuing education requirements could also explain the drop in applicants, noted the article, as well as a shift away from public service work, the extreme stress that comes with the job, the chance of injury and varying hours/shifts.

“It’s a totally different ballgame than it was 30 years ago,” said Independence Fire Chief Steve Rega. “There are so many other hats we wear now, and everything is a higher skillset.”

Today’s firefighters don’t only battle blazes. Firefighters are also trained paramedics able to administer medications, provide emergency medical assistance and perform procedures. Departments are also trained for active shooter situations. National and state standards are also growing increasingly more complex and sophisticated.

Today’s firefighters are also called to be extremely active in their communities, participating in local events, conducting youth programming, performing inspections and evaluations, working with career centers and vocational schools, and hosting career days.

The Brecksville Fire Department has an Explorer Post program where high school upperclassmen are able to attend trainings, help with public relations events and ride side-by-side with firefighter/paramedics during emergency calls (with a parent’s permission).

“The Cuyahoga Valley Career Center has a program where high school juniors and seniors can work towards obtaining their Emergency Medical Technician certification,” Zamiska said. “These students also get to experience the fire service during their required ride-along time with local fire departments.”

Independence has a similar exploration program for local high school seniors, Rega said, but efforts to interest and net the next generation could be stronger, noting how many highschoolers seem more motivated by careers in the tech space. The department’s command staff consists of Chief Rega, Assistant Chief Jim Wheeler, three fire lieutenants and a fire prevention lieutenant. There are three shifts of fire fighters, an administrative assistant and 10 part-time firefighters filling in as needed to maintain staffing on a daily basis, according to

“While the current trend has seen a decrease in the number of applicants, we have been fortunate to interview and hire quality candidates, including recently,” Zamiska said. “Now our members are paramedics, equipped with state-of-the-art ambulances and equipment, administering dozens of medications in the field, and performing procedures in the field that you would see done in an emergency room. Equipment and trends are always evolving in fire service, and in addition to fighting fires, members have to be trained in technical rescue, hazardous materials response, and much more.” ∞