Research Spotlight: The Impact of COVID-19 on Firefighters

When people think of public servants, they traditionally think about police officers, teachers, and counselors. Each public servant represents a unique and valued member of society. Yet, firefighters do not always come to mind as public servants even though they are one of the most essential professionals in American society. 2020 data indicates that a fire department responds to a fire every 23 seconds, on average, in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association. A home fire was reported every 89 seconds, a home fire death occurred every three hours and 24 minutes, and a home fire injury occurred every 46 minutes. The profession of firefighting plays an integral role in civilians’ everyday life.

Like other public service professions, the firefighting profession has dealt with two issues over the past three years: COVID-19 and increased diversity. As a result of the virus, day-to-day operations were impacted along with being short-staffed due to the increase in deaths. Another issue, which has become more prevalent in the fire services, is identifying ways to increase racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in the fire department. The profession has traditionally been led and staffed by individuals who identify as White and male. However, there has been a push by leaders and administrators in the fire service to diversity the profession. These two issues brought about the present study.

The working paper aims to address the impact of COVID-19 on firefighter day-to-day operations and work-life balance. Additionally, the paper stives to identify ways to increase race, ethnic, and gender representation within the fire service. Finally, it seeks to understand if firefighters face any discrimination when they are on the job and if so, how they address it.

Fifty interviews with the Tallahassee Fire Department were conducted. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes and all interviews were conducted in-person in the Summer of 2021. The Fire Department serves between 200,000 and 500,000 people. Since the start of COVID-19 pandemic, the Fire Department has made efforts to cope with the effects of the pandemic and increase race, ethnic, and gender diversity within its ranks. Outside of asking questions about COVID-19 and representation within the profession, the interview also asks questions about direct interactions with the public, work-life balance, mental health, and training.

Preliminary analysis has revealed COVID-19 drastically impacted firefighting in 2020 and 2021. When the pandemic began, many firefighters contracted the virus and had to call off from work. Firefighters work in 24-hour shifts, so firefighters who did not contract the virus ended up working double shifts. As one can assume, firefighters who worked double shifts often felt “drained, like a walking body with no head attached” and the draining workload effected their performance on the job. Moreover, firefighters indicated that they were more irritable and often took their frustration to their homes, which were detrimental to their relationships outside of work.

Given the preliminary results, the firefighters who participated in the survey all indicate that there is a need to increase diversity among its ranks. Both supervisors and the fire captain urge the Fire Department to increase race, ethnicity, and gender diversity, and to do so, it will require higher signing bonuses for entry-level firefighters, different recruitment strategies, and changing work schedules. The leadership at the Fire Department has explored alternative work hours as one way to recruit diverse firefighters. Additionally, there is a need to create better peer-mentorship programs to increase the pipeline and retention of firefighters who are non-White and non-male.

As we start to transition out of COVID-19, the firefighting profession has a lot of work to do. From these interviews, leadership within one fire department is thinking through ways to increase diversity. Since firefighters represent public servants, having a more diverse work force will be a significant push for the fire services to be representative for all people.

James E. Wright II, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Public Policy at Florida State University where his research specializes in policing, law enforcement agency management, and race.

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