Rural fire protection district plans ahead with creative recruiting strategy.

Only a couple hours south of Grand Junction, but far away from anywhere else, little Norwood Fire Protection District wants to expand and repeat its wildland contracting program that was initiated last season. It proved to be a successful way to help fund the department, and provides a good example of creative recruiting strategies being employed by rural fire districts on the Western Slope.

“We’re planning for the smart, sustainable growth of Norwood Fire with as little impact to our taxpayers as possible,” said NFPD Chief John Bockrath. “We increased our resources and capabilities last year, and Wildland Coordinator Mark Garcia got us out there on assignments. He quickly established an outstanding reputation and demand for Norwood’s services among state and federal incident commanders, and now we just need more firefighters.”

Though short-term plans for a recruiting drive include local outreach and a social media campaign, the district’s sparse population has inspired the NFPD to think more strategically. Bockrath wants to tap into regional urban markets like Grand Junction for contract candidates displaced by the pandemic, and who find themselves part of the growing “gig worker” economy that trends toward seasonal jobs. Some may integrate into Norwood Fire operations on a regular basis, but perhaps of longer-term significance, Bockrath is also initiating a “homegrown” recruiting strategy that can set an example for other rural departments.

“We’re developing a scholarship program and career path for local kids,” said Bockrath. “By working with educators and local benefactors, we’re looking for young people to consider becoming fire service and emergency medical professionals.” He explained how these apprenticeships can lead to permanent, paid positions with Norwood Fire, and that recruits can move onward and upward in a number of careers and academic pursuits. These can include specialties in public safety, medicine, resource management, environmental sciences and other fields, plus jobs with government agencies like the Forest Service, the BLM and larger fire departments like Grand Junction, Durango and Gunnison on the Western Slope.

Garcia led his crew on seven deployments last season. With new vehicles, with more volunteers after last year’s successful recruiting drive, and with the recent hiring of Chief Paramedic Matthew Mogg, NFPD is set to protect the district while rolling engines and crews to those far-flung hot spots already looming in the 2021 fire season.

“With the sporadic work, the traveling, and sometimes two-week-long shifts away from home, it’s hard enough to get committed crews together,” said Garcia. “The state and federal stipulations for qualified personnel makes it all the more challenging to staff big fires.” An engine or ambulance out on contract requires highly skilled technicians and crew leaders like Engine Bosses and EMTs who command high pay rates, yet are hard positions to fill.

“We want our scholarship winners to get those good-paying jobs, train them toward those higher-level certifications, then stay on into the off season by helping us develop our mitigation services,” said Bockrath in explaining another component of the long-term growth plan and recruiting efforts.

With more fire activity every year — and dangerously overgrown forests throughout the West — there’s increasing concerns about forest management and fire prevention. There’s new industry and a movement on the rise to meet the needs to thin forests and create defensible space around buildings and property all across rural America. NFPD has recently joined the West Region Wildfire Council, and will be expanding its mitigation services with interagency partnerships, private landowners, and through the WRWC’s cost-sharing grant programs.

“By creating long-term, year-round career paths, the department is better-qualified to roll on big fire operations, and to take on the expanding mission of mitigation,” said Bockrath. “Looking into the future, this is better for our community and for public safety, and we can give some of our kids the ability to stay in the area and settle down with meaningful, rewarding work and job security.”

John Metzger is the public information officer for Norwood Fire Protection District.