Crackling sounds fill the air as the flames consume the building, the trees, the land. The smoke is so thick you can’t see where you’re going. Your helmet further blocks your view and presses down on you like the rest of the 45 pounds of gear protecting you from the intense heat and noxious fumes. A wave of claustrophobia and fear rises. Then your training begins.
“You must not be afraid of the dark and you must not be afraid of tight spaces. You have to push back your fear and get your job done,” said Ross Macumber, battalion commander in Contra Costa County’s fire protection district. His experience of over 20 years in the fire service and his continuous training as a firefighter have most likely saved his life more times than he can imagine.
Not everyone is cut out to be a firefighter, but there used to be more people who were up for the job. Past fire seasons have highlighted the dangers and health risks that firefighters face in a society becoming more conscious of mental and physical health, resulting in a decline in hiring for the Contra Costa Fire Protection District and in entry-level vacancies and rankings ones.
“There used to be 4,000 applications for 10 positions, but now we’ve seen about half that number, which is a significant decrease in recent years,” said Vince Wells, president of the United Firefighters of Contra Costa County, the professional organization representing firefighters in the county .
Contra Costa is one of the largest fire department districts in California. It covers 304 square miles and operates 36 fire stations in 14 cities and unincorporated areas. Covering such a large area requires a well-manned fire department. Recruiting this staff takes time.
Candidates are first tested and interviewed, then undergo a psychological and physical assessment before enrolling in a four-month training course.
“You can’t just hire someone and they become a firefighter right away. The entire process of staffing the units takes up to a year,” says Wells.
Minimum requirements to become a Contra Costa County firefighter include a valid driver’s license and EMT training. Some fire brigades also require a paramedic license or other training.
Due to the pandemic, schools and training facilities have been closed for two years, creating a backlog of EMT and medical schools, where fire departments typically find a large pool of recruits.
“We’re still not caught up in this shutdown and things are just slowly getting back to normal,” Macumber said.
Wells receives weekly calls from fire stations around the county with staffing issues. Firefighters work longer shifts to cover the ground, but that’s not a long-term solution.
“It’s a stressful business and that’s the nature of it. You work 48 hours and 96 hours off. The operational pace is fast and we are the busiest district in the district,” said Contra Costa District Public Information Officer Steve Hill.
CalFire listed the 2020 fire season as the state’s worst, and that year Contra Costa County was involved in the third largest fire complex — a scenario where multiple fires occur in the same area under one jurisdiction. According to CalFire’s report, nearly 400,000 acres and 200 buildings burned in the SCU Lightning Complex.
The fires were started by dry lightning on August 16. Macumber was woken up by a lightning strike in the middle of the night. When his phone lit up with a fire alarm, he quickly got dressed and went to work.
“All I remember is how hot and muggy it was and seeing lightning everywhere. That’s when I got the queasy feeling that this was really happening,” says Macumber.
For the next 24 hours, he and his colleagues worked with little or no interruption as new fire reports continued to pour in. With each passing hour, the temperature and humidity rose, pushing the firefighters to their limits.
“They were digging deep within their personal selves for energy that they needed to push through,” says Macumber.
When teams from Southern California arrived the next day, Contra Costa firefighters were forced to take a break. On his way home, all of Macumber could see bright orange fire on the hills and thick gray smoke while lightning was still striking.
It wasn’t until a year later that Macumber realized how fortunate the county and its firefighters were that the SCU Lightening Complex did not spread further and only minor injuries were reported. He still gets scared when there is lightning.
With California’s wildfires on the rise, Macumber understands why younger people would find the profession so off-putting.
“All we’ve seen every summer is these huge flames showing people the horror stories. If I’m someone who isn’t sure about his career, I’d be scared too,” says Macumber.
Wells, the union president, has noticed that younger people are not only concerned about the dangers they face as firefighters, but also about the potential long-term physical and mental consequences.
A comprehensive 2015 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters experienced a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses—particularly mesothelioma and cancers of the respiratory, digestive tract, and urinary tract—and a 14% increase in cancer diagnoses compared to the general US population % increase in cancer-related deaths.
Additionally, in a 2018 bulletin, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration concluded that firefighters’ exposure to traumatic experiences associated with their irregular sleep schedules can have a significant impact on their mental health. SAMHSA also noted that stigma and financial costs have kept some firefighters from getting help.
In addition to his role as battalion commander, Macumber also oversees the fire department’s health and wellness program. One of its primary responsibilities is to provide firefighters with an annual comprehensive physical exam that includes deep scans to look for cancer markers, heart disease, and other physical problems that often go unnoticed.
The program also offers a free app for mindfulness and meditation, a helpful tool for mental health and sleep regulation. A trained group within the district is deployed to assess the psychological status of firefighters when they experience a traumatic event on the scene.
Doctors and psychologists visit the fire stations. But unlike Los Angeles County, Contra Costa doesn’t have a medical facility for firefighters. However, it is aiming to develop a health and wellness center, Macumber says.
By ensuring access to preventive care, as well as providing mental and physical health care, Macumber and his colleagues hope to encourage more people to become firefighters.
Hill said the district has put significantly more energy into recruiting in recent years. She organizes events
“We have to work harder to compete for a noticeably smaller pool of recruits,” says Hill.
The district also offers specialty training in areas such as hazmat, aviation firefighting, or heavy rescue, covering such things as extrication. The versatility creates an environment that offers a variety of roles and the opportunity to work across the country, Hill says.
Macumber noted that there are many rewards of being a firefighter, intangibles that keep people on the job. Even after the busy 2020 fire season, the vast majority of the county’s firefighters continued their work.
Job satisfaction takes different forms. On one occasion, Macumber and his team rescued boxes of pictures from a house before they burst into flames. When they gave a resident a saved family photo, she cried and said it was the only photo in the house that she cared about.
“There’s this sense of purpose and belonging and that what we do means something,” says Macumber.
A desire to serve the public is one of the many qualities he and his colleagues look for in recruits. Many recruits have already attended fire classes or come from firefighting families. Recruiting people with no connection to the fire department is a bigger problem, he says.
“How do we pack people who might not be thinking about doing this job but would be great firefighters? Because they are out there.”
For information about the job and how to become a Contra Costa Fire Protection District firefighter, visit the district’s website.