The most recent class of Bellevue firefighters come from all walks of life.
Some are from as close as Redmond and another as far away as Indiana. Some knew that firefighting was in their future. Others spent time as a research biochemist, a juvenile corrections officer, a chiropractic physician, a pastor or a bartender. They range in age from 26 to 39.
No matter what the nine members of the 2017-1 recruit academy class for the Bellevue Fire Department did or who they were before the 13-week fire academy and five-week emergency medical technician training sessions, for the next eight months, they will work in shifts at different stations to complete their year-long probationary period to become full-fledged firefighters.
The only problem is that more people are retiring from the department than make it through screening, training and into full employment.
Brian Gomez, public information officer for the Bellevue Fire Department, was candid about the difficulty to recruit, train and employ qualified candidates, particularly with an aging department.
“Since 2014 we’ve had 43 new hires due to retirements in the department. That’s 19 percent of the force,” he said. “And we are coming up on a big wave of retirements again.”
The Bellevue Fire Department has 244 employees, of which 200 are firefighters, paramedics, lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs staffing nine fire stations and four Medic One locations. The other 44 employees are in fire administration, which includes emergency medical services, fire prevention, training and outreach services. Gomez said there are currently 10-12 vacancies in the department.
While the last thing the department wants is less ideal candidates (the department is currently internationally accredited and has earned an insurance service office rating of 2, the second best possible rating nationally), a rigorous recruitment process can leave some behind.
Andrew Dragovich, one of the members of the newest academy class, said the training is intense.
“The training is very physical and there’s a big mental aspect of it too,” he said. “We have drill books and we are learning new subject matter every single day for four-and-a-half months. But I love the culture of Bellevue and I worked at Tri-Med before. My dad is in the fire service in south King County, so I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Dragovich’s class went through the East Metro Training Group academy, which serves multiple municipalities on the Eastside. A concurrent East Metro academy was hosted in Kenmore by the Northshore Fire Department’s training facility. In all, 34 firefighters were in the 2017-1 academy class. The training group was spawned seven years ago as a way to help standardize practices between Eastside agencies to better provide support to one another.
To become a Bellevue firefighter, an applicant must submit information and be invited to pay a fee to take a written test. Another fee is charged to send that score to hiring departments before a physical test. These are through a third-party company, which takes candidates’ scores from all over the region, compiles them and matches them with nearby departments. It’s “cost-prohibitive” for each department to do that on its own, Gomez said.
“The people you tend to see are the high scorers,” he said. “And I feel like we are missing out on a lot of good candidates. There are people who are passionate and trustworthy who don’t test well, or someone might have a bad day and we’ll never hear from them.”
If the candidates pay the fees, pass the tests and then get contacted by a department willing to take a chance with them, the academy is all in. You don’t have the time to hold down another job, and while candidates are paid during the 18 weeks of training, people can and do wash out of the academy or don’t meet standards. It’s back to square one for them.
“You report to the academy in the morning and have a test the next day on the material you cover,” Gomez said. “You go home and are beat-up tired and you still have to study and make flash cards. It’s not easy.”
Then, after completing the academy and heading off to the respective department, the employee is an at-will hire for a year until they can join the union. They operate in shifts at several of Bellevue’s fire stations so they can get the lay of the land and be well drilled in how the department operates.
Only then can they officially be considered a full fledged Bellevue firefighter.
This rigorous hiring process produces some of the finest EMT-trained firefighters in the area, but it also makes it hard to find enough qualified candidates.
To apply to become a Bellevue firefighter, a job that has a $57,000 starting salary during the probationary period and bumps to $68,582 after that first year, applicants can visit the city of Bellevue’s jobs site.
The last opportunity to take a test for this current hiring process with Bellevue Fire is Tuesday, July 25, 2017, for the written exam and Sunday, July 30, 2017, for the candidate physical ability test (CPAT).
“There’s not just one kind of person who applies,” Gomez said. “We want to reach people who maybe never have thought of being a firefighter. Not everyone graduates high school and wants to be a firefighter.”
The Bellevue Fire Department serves Bellevue, Medina, Beaux Arts, the Points communities, Clyde Hill and Newcastle, as well as support services for other local fire departments.