By David Skolnick
It’s difficult to recruit city residents for firefighter jobs and even more challenging to hire them, said Fire Chief John J. O’Neill Jr. and Jonathan Huff, civil service commissioner.
So the fire department, civil service and the Mahoning-Youngstown Community Action Partnership are teaming up to create a junior firefighter program to get youths age 12 to 18 interested in becoming firefighters and prepare them for tests.
The program is expected to begin in January with about 20 to 25 kids, Huff said.
In the most recent firefighter written test, in February, 220 people applied with 48 being city residents. Of those 48, 15 didn’t bother to show up to take the test while nine others failed it. Two who passed didn’t attempt the physical test while 10 others failed the physical test. That left only 12 city residents compared with 65 nonresidents who passed both tests.
Of those 77, the city hired only one Youngstown resident because state law requires the municipality to hire from among the top 25 percent of those who pass both tests.
Getting city residents to take and pass the tests has been a long-standing problem, O’Neill said.
Seminars and events to help city residents improve their test scores haven’t been enough, he said.
“We’ve been recruiting for 20 years at churches, schools and [Youngstown State University], and passing out fliers, but it doesn’t work,” O’Neill said.
To participate in the junior firefighter program, Youngstown students need a reference from a teacher or principal at their school along with an essay of at least 100 words on why they want to be in the program.
Those accepted will participate in activities at fire stations once a month on Saturdays — eat lunch with firefighters, help clean the firetrucks, learn how to use the various tools and equipment, and be introduced to what it takes to be a firefighter.
Participants also will earn “promotions” based on their school grades, conduct, community service, work ethic and attendance, O’Neill said.
“We want to expose kids to this at an early age,” Huff said. “The goal is to have the firefighters become mentors to these kids and see them through the process.”
MYCAP will provide workforce development programs for those going through the junior firefighter program to help prepare them for the civil service tests once they turn 18, said Renee Walton, the agency’s chief executive officer.
The challenge to hire Youngstown residents — particularly minorities and women — has increased since the Ohio Supreme Court struck down home-rule authority in June 2009. The court ruled it unconstitutional for municipalities to have laws requiring their workers to live in those cities and villages as a condition of hiring. Those who work for Youngstown can live anywhere in Mahoning County or a county that borders it.
That’s led to an increase in people from adjoining counties, who have taken firefighter tests throughout the state, to seek employment in Youngstown, O’Neill and Huff said.
“Those scoring high and getting hired are already experienced as volunteer firefighters and are professional test-takers,” Huff said. “They go all over the state. By the time Youngstown’s test comes around, it’s repetition. The more you take exams, the better you score. Also, when they come to take the test, they’re in their dress blues and shined shoes with volunteer firefighter shirts. It’s intimidating, so kids from here are already at a disadvantage before the test starts.”
O’Neill said he prefers city residents over those from out of town as firefighters.
“If I need someone who lives in [an adjoining] county for a major blaze and they’re two hours away, it doesn’t do me any good,” he said. “Also, they don’t know the city. They don’t know the street locations. They don’t know where the fire stations are. I’d take a city kid over a suburb kid. The city kids grew up here and know where to go.”
The chief acknowledged that numerous firefighters who lived in Youngstown when residency was required have moved elsewhere. But he said at least they lived in the city for some time and know it.