By Malia K. Salaam
For the past couple of years, DC’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services has been “under fire.” Situations ranging from internal fighting amongst department heads and the union to allegations of incompetence due to slow response times, peppered the local news media. Many a pundit was available to comment on the things they felt were wrong with the department, but few took the time to identify the things FEMS was getting right. The department’s two-fold mission is to, “Promote safety and health through excellent pre-hospital medical care and to promote safety and health through excellent fire suppression, hazardous materials responses, technical rescue, homeland security preparedness, fire prevention and education.”
One of the ways FEMS is able to carry out this mission is to have a pool of qualified candidates from which to select. In 1988, the department instituted a cadet training program to create such resource of young DC residents, fueling opportunity for them to enter a distinctive, high-demand profession. For the past three years, under the leadership of Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, FEMS has revitalized the cadet training program that had previously been besieged by funding issues, low recruitment, low retention and graduation rates, and being forced to disqualify trainees who violated residency requirements.
I had a conversation with the current FEMS Public Information Officer, Timothy Wilson. We discussed the successes and failures the cadet training program has experienced over the years. One of the biggest setbacks was in 2006, when former Chief Adrian Thompson was forced to return over $200,000 in federal funds due to low enrollment. That amount did not include the additional funds that had to be returned annually for cadets who do not complete the program. “The program remained stagnant another four years after that.” He noted, “Historically, one of the highlights has been the training program’s ability to provide a cadre of potential firefighters on a consistent basis. Going forward, we want to maintain a high level of consistency in getting cadets through the program.”
At this juncture, the cadet training program seems to have found its stride, having consistent enrollment each year between 20 and 30 trainees. The current class has twenty-five cadets representing various wards, particularly 7 and 8, and includes nine young women. Cadets who enter and complete the training program aren’t just equipped to fight fires and handle medical emergencies; they are also in a position to fight, in some cases, generational poverty, by earning credentials in one of the most sought-after, respected professions in America. Graduates of the one-year training program each receive:
• National Registry Emergency Medical Technician membership (NREMT)
• Nationally recognized Candidate Physical Ability Test certificate (CPAT)
• IFSAC Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations certification
• IFSAC Firefighter I and II certification
• Receive a stipend during the program
• Career opportunity with the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department
• $40K + a year salary once hired and benefits (Health, Dental, and Vision)
Mr. Wilson cited one of the greatest benefits was: “Being able to, at a very young age to enter the work force and a profession that will benefit them in the long run.” He also noted that one of the highest ranking former cadets is Acting Deputy Chief Mark Wynn, who graduated from one of the first classes. His service and advancement through the ranks prove that entry-level positions can grow to high levels of leadership, if taken seriously.
Captain Jernigan, Director of Recruitment for the program said the department provides many young people the opportunity to “find their WHY.” This sense of purpose, that might have previously been untapped, is nurtured through active engagement and recruitment of 12th grade students in particular. “Each spring, sometime between March and May, we come out to DCPS and DC Public Charter Schools, hold assemblies and orientations. We participate in Career Fairs and at the end of the year we receive recommendations of prospective cadets from the schools’ Guidance Counselors.” As an added measure, to capture, say a student who received a GED or might have already gone away to college for one year, FEMS partnered with the Department of Employment Services (DOES) in order to fund those cadets who met all other requirements, sans being a currently enrolled in high school.
Eligibility for the program seems straight-forward enough. Applicants interested in joining the next class of cadets, who begin training in fall 2014, should be District of Columbia Public and Charter High School Students between the ages of 18-19 years old. They cannot reach their 20th birthday on or before January 31, 2014. They must hold a valid provisional Driver’s License. The department strongly recommends that they inquire with their school’s Guidance Counselor for help with the application.
Thereafter, the application process becomes a bit unwieldy and potentially intimidating for some. After FEMS receives applications, an Assessment Test is conducted by the Community College of the District of Columbia (CCDC). Once applicants have completed the assessment test, a registry is generated and applicants are then ranked by test results. The pre-hiring process requires that applicants complete a Personal History Statement, also known as a “Blue Book.” Next, documentation is collected to verify proof of age, citizenship, DC residency, education, and selective service application (for males only). Finally, applicants are expected to undergo a Police/FBI background check, submit a motor vehicle report, complete a Police and Fire Medical Evaluation, a psychological assessment, an interview, and reference check. Phew! Not to fear, applicants have Captain Jernigan and his team to help them navigate the maze.
When I asked Mr. Wilson what type of young people were attracted to the program, he remarked, “Each cadet has had to overcome some sort of barrier to even cross the threshold. It’s not easy, it’s not a cakewalk. Completing this program requires a strong sense of mental toughness that people don’t consider. Our cadets are committed to accomplishing something early in their lives. It doesn’t matter what obstacles are in their path…they’re just that committed!”
For more information on how a young person can join the upcoming class, stay tuned to www.fems.dc.gov for information, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The department also has a civilian EMT training course, for adults who have aged out of the traditional cadet program.