Whether you’re full-time or paid/on-call, it’s not easy, but it can certainly be rewarding
What does it take to become a firefighter at the Crookston Fire Department?
Bob Magsam, Fire Captain for the CFD, told the Times about the training process and what it takes to become a firefighter.
He began by stating that the process varies at every fire department. Some fire departments have volunteer firefighters, on-call paid firefighters, and full-time career firefighters. The Crookston Fire Department only has on-call paid firefighters (that are housed under the Crookston Firefighter’s Association) and full-time firefighters.
“As far as Crookston is concerned, the paid on-call side, there are very minimal requirements, because we do very extensive training in house,” Magsam mentioned in the interview.
To become an on-call paid firefighter, an applicant simply needs a high school diploma or equivalent and a valid Class D driver’s license.
If a firefighter is operating a vehicle for the fire department in the area, they are exempt from commercial driver’s license rules, explaining why a more advanced license is not necessary to operate the large vehicles.
Experience in the field or certifications from the state are helpful, as the application process is competitive, but they are not necessary, Magsam said.
The application process includes a simple work application with references, a background check, an interview, and a physical agility course.
The agility test is a timed agility course that applicants have two chances to pass within the time limit.
Because the fire department only takes applications when positions are open, application process can be very competitive. Firefighters usually stay on the force for 20 to 30 years. Sometimes, when a position opens, there can be as many as 10 to 14 applicants, or as few as four to five. The department rarely struggles to find applicants.
Magsam said that at Crookston Fire Department, there have not been any female firefighters. Some have applied and one was hired, but had to back out because of work conflicts. However, he said that the force does want female firefighters, and that “there is a dramatic trend nationwide of females entering the fire service and doing very well at their job.”
Once an applicant is hired and has passed their agility test and background check, the training process itself takes a minimum of three years for an on-call paid firefighter.
“We have a pretty vigorous training program.” Magsam described. “In that they must meet all basic firefighting skills, they must meet hazardous material requirements, and they must also meet emergency medical service training.”
The training will lead them to obtain a minimum of a Firefighter 1 (FF1) certification and a medical responder certification.
Training usually takes 140 hours over the three years of training.
Garett Bengtson told the Times in an interview that he was hired just over a year ago as an on-call paid firefighter and mentioned that he and the other trainees have closely followed a book that “covers everything from minor first aid to what to do in a grass fire to how to handle hazmat.”
Bengtson said that his class of trainees recently attended a three to four hour class every Wednesday, and day-long trainings some Saturdays to work towards certification.
At the end of that specific training period, firefighters must pass a national test to gain the FF1 certification which most of the newest Crookston recruits have and in a record amount of time.
To become a full-time career firefighter, many of the certifications that are earned during training for an on-call firefighter must already be obtained when applying for the career position.
“Currently, the city of Crookston has a requirement of a minimum of a FF1 certification, hazmat operations, and emergency medical responder,” Magsam said. “Applicants must have those along with a valid driver’s license and a high school diploma or equivalent.”
The city also requires that career hires obtain a Firefighter 2 (FF2) certification over two years.
Magsam said that career firefighters with the FF2 certification are like “officers” in the fire department as opposed to the on-call paid firefighters.
“It’s more of a supervisor role, which is what the full-time staff tends to fall into,” Magsam said.
In order to train new recruits, the department does training burns where houses that would normally be torn down are instead burned as a way for firefighters to practice fighting a real building fire.
“Before you (new firefighters) can go inside a real structure fire, you must first go to a live (training) fire and experience the heat and see how the fire acted,” Bengtson said.
The department also has a concrete training building in Crookston where they can light fires and then put them out, the Times was told.
As far as drills are concerned, firefighters prepare by putting on their personal protective equipment, or firefighter gear, as fast as they can during what they call a “quick drill.” In order to pass the drill test, they must be able to complete the “quick drill”, or put on their gear properly, in 90 seconds or less.
“We conduct these drills every year here and all the firefighters, they get to put on their gear so many times here,” Magsam explained. “They do very, very well.”
Magsam guessed that the on-call firefighters spend 80 to 100 hours a year on average of fire service hours at the department. On-call firefighters must also meet a certain percentage of calls made to the department every year. However, added to the number of hours working are hours of volunteer work that the department does for the community.
Firefighters can be trained enough to run fire calls in as little as 12 months. Before they can go on any real calls, they must meet certain minimum training requirements.
“They must meet all the minimum requirements to enter into structure fires, they must meet minimum requirements for automobile accidents and hazardous material accidents,” Magsam explained.
The department is careful to not put them in a position that they are not ready to be in, Magsam added.
“We always tell the new firefighters, we don’t want to put you there because we don’t want you to put yourself or anybody else in a bad situation because of lack of training, not because of lack of effort by any means.” he remarked.
Bengtson said that although the firefighters can gain the FF1 certification in three years, the training doesn’t stop.
“Every spring, there are section schools based out of Moorhead,” Bengtson said. “There are many different classes we can take in there, some with fire study, leadership, search and rescue techniques, and auto extraction.”
Another way to become a firefighter is to go to Northland Community Technical College, or another school, and obtain a two-year firefighting degree.
“Basically that gets them a FF2 certification and clears them on the medical side,” Magsam said. “That two-year program is kind of designed for firefighters who want a career or a full-time job.”
Magsam added that FF1 and FF2 certifications are required across the country.
“We’re training our firefighters here locally exactly the way they would train them across the country,” he told the Times.
When asked why he chose to apply to become a firefighter, Bengtson said, “I felt it was my civic duty. We’ve lived in Crookston for quite a while now and the city has done so much for us, so this is my way of giving back. I really enjoy it.”
Bengtson’s first fire call was also a memorable experience.
“My first call was a 147-acre grass fire north of town,” Bengtson recalled. “Watching the fire roll over the hills coming towards us, after we’d set up a burn line, that was incredible. You’d see it eat up a tree and keep coming, and eat up whatever was in front of us, and it just kept coming.”
When Eli Sullivan, the newest recruit, was asked why he applied, he said, “I just wanted to give back to the community.” He also said that he is happy to be helping the community while being a first responder as a Crookston firefighter.