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"Paid-on-call" firefighter. What does it mean?

Updated: May 27, 2022

I have spoken to hundreds of candidates about becoming a firefighter. Over the years, I have learned to start each conversation with a brief history of the fire service because most people believe the firefighter's role is a full-time position. Our conversations go back to the foundation of the fire service when communities came together to help one another if they suffered a fire. As communities grew and the fire service better organized, volunteers offered their assistance and found ways to prepare their communities for emergencies. They raised money and purchased equipment. They trained and educated their neighbors on fire prevention. When populations grew, so did the demand, and there was a need to transition into a more secure staffing model as volunteers had to work and care for their families. They could no longer give their time away for free. Cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia had a volunteer fire service in the past.

Today, we see that same transition occurring across the United States. When I started my career in the late 1980s, firefighters responded to fires, smells & bells, and a few automobile crashes. Now the fire service has become the Swiss Army Knife responding to calls unheard of in the past. Their PPE consists of fire gear, medical, pandemic, civil unrest, water, high and low angle rescue, collapse rescue, and more. Because of the community's demands, more calls for service weigh on those who once "volunteered." Not to mention more mandates to manage the fire department, such as employment laws, training requirements, and equipment needs. Finding people to manage all of that for free is going away. Communities began to introduce an hourly rate for firefighters to entice them to stay. When they are dispatched to the station, the clock starts, and they are paid an hourly rate until they are relieved from duty. This is known as the "paid-on-call" firefighter.

There are over 20,000 firefighters protecting 5.6 million residents in Minnesota. Of those, fewer than 3,500 provide services as a true volunteer. They receive no hourly rate for the work that they do. However, they are responding to the same risks as all other firefighters do. It should be noted that there is no law in Minnesota that requires a community to have a fire department. It is a service the local government approves for the benefit of their community. That same local government determines the compensation model for their firefighters and it differs greatly across the state. Rural communities often have volunteers with fewer than 100 calls for service annually. Many suburbs are transforming into a paid model as their communities grow and calls for service soar to 1,000 and more. Fewer people are able to serve for free. Metropolitan cities such as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, and Duluth only use full-time firefighters.

When you are hired as a volunteer or on-call firefighter, a voice pager will be assigned to you. The pager is connected to the 911 dispatch center that takes emergency calls for your area. When a call comes in, a computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) determines what fire department responds to the area of the emergency. The 911 dispatcher enters the call and dispatches the firefighters to the station. You can hear the dispatcher over the pager announce the type of emergency it is and the location it is at. You can also hear updates as you are responding to the station. Once you arrive at the fire station, you assemble with others, select the vehicle you will need to mitigate the emergency, and respond to the scene. Fire departments typically require their on-call firefighters to respond to a certain percentage of calls by month, quarter, or year. If your fire department responds to 250 calls per year, you may be required to attend at least 30% (75) of those calls. You may also be required to attend a certain number of training sessions and meetings. The percentage measures your good standing with the fire department. They need a minimum number of staff at the station to serve and keep other firefighters safe. As an on-call firefighter, you will be paid for your time working as a firefighter. You are an employee of the city and are offered workers compensation benefits in case you are injured on the job. You may be offered other benefits as well. Again, each community is different. All communities offer free training, equipment, and support as you onboard into the fire service. The job is exciting and allows you to learn much more about yourself and the community you serve. It also allows you to meet some great families and new friends as you serve together for the greater good.

If you're looking for new skills and a team environment, consider joining your local fire department. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about becoming a firefighter. I would be happy to help you.


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