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Quad-Cities fire departments say the applicant pool is shrinking
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Quad-Cities fire departments say the applicant pool is shrinking

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Bettendorf fire truck

Fire engine No. 2 at Spruce Hills Fire Station in Bettendorf in 2012.

Quad-Cities fire departments say hiring has become more difficult during recent years, because fewer people are applying to be firefighters.

Moline Fire Chief Jeff Snyder said he's seen a decrease in applicants during just the last couple years, and he's waiting to see what this year's applications look like. He said he's not sure if the decrease is related to COVID-19 or if the younger generation is just not interested in becoming a firefighter.

Snyder said he wishes young people had a better understanding of what firefighters do, stating that it's not all about fighting fires. The fire department responds to calls regarding medical issues and other miscellaneous 911 calls. 

In Rock Island, applicants are required to have a paramedic license before they can be hired, Rock Island Fire Chief Jeff Yerkey said. He said a lot of potential applicants will spend their time after high school working on that license, since they can't legally be hired as a firefighter until they're 21.

Yerkey said he thinks the department loses some potential applicants during those years between high school and reaching the age of 21.

"The generation now might be more interested in other careers," Yerkey said. "Back 20 or 30 years ago you could have at least 100 applicants, and now it's down to maybe a couple dozen or so."

This last year was especially difficult because they had to delay the physical tests that are part of the hiring process due to COVID-19. They normally start the testing in the spring, but last year applicants had to wait until the fall, and Yerkey said he thinks that decreased the applicant pool.

East Moline Fire Chief Robert DeFrance said he's also seen a gradual decrease in applicants over several years. He said over the years, the pool of applicants has continued to shrink, from hundreds when older members of the fire squad applied, to 20-30 in recent years.

"We’re just not getting that type of turnout for these positions anymore,” DeFrance said.

In Illinois, fire departments must make a new eligibility pool every two years, which involves applicants undergoing a physical and written exam. Then, top applicants are ranked in a list, and when the fire department has a vacancy, they hire from the pool.

In Iowa, the process is similar, Bettendorf Fire Chief Steve Knorrek said. Bettendorf renews their list of eligible applicants once a year, but Davenport does it every two years, according to Knorrek.

Davenport Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Knorrek said he didn't see a decrease in applications in Bettendorf until just this year. Bettendorf fire department dropped from 60 applicants in 2020 to 38 in 2021, and Knorrek said he had no idea why there was such a big decrease.

DeFrance said he thinks the time commitment and uncertainty of a job is deterring some applicants.

Just the physical exam is a process that takes place over the course of eight weeks, DeFrance said, and the written test is a couple hours long.

Aspiring firefighters can apply to multiple departments and accept the first position that comes open. That means fire departments could make it well down the list of pool applicants before finding one that is still available for a job once a spot comes open, especially if it’s later in the two-year pool cycle, DeFrance said. 

“It’s an awful lot of time and commitment," DeFrance said, "and all I can tell you is that there may or may not be a position open in the next two years."

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