Decatur Fire & Rescue seeks greater applicant turnout, especially when it comes to women

Female firefighters make up about four percent of the industry nationwide
Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 10:22 AM CDT
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DECATUR, Ala. (WAFF) - Smoke filled the inside of a burning building at the Decatur Fire & Rescue Training Center off Old Hwy 31. A victim was trapped inside the dark, hot structure. Lieutenant Emily Tapscott threw on 75-pounds of gear and led the way in.

There are 113 firefighters in Decatur Fire Rescue. Tapscott is the only female.

“We are having a hard time just getting anybody and it seems like especially females, it’s hard to get them to come in,” Fire Chief Tracy Thornton said.

Female firefighters make up about four percent of the industry nationwide. Lieutenant Tapscott is paving the way in the Tennessee Valley.

“I had a lot of friends that were firefighters in other cities and I used to work out with them,” Tapscott said. “And pretty much they said that I could pass the physical and so it was more of a challenge, and I wanted to try it. So I did.”

Tapscott went all in. She started working out six days a week, incorporating CrossFit and focusing on weight training in preparation for the physical agility test. At the time, candidates had to pass the test on the first go. Tapscott’s training paid off.

“My kids were young and I was a single parent so I would make my son sit on my back and I would walk around hiking with him on my back all the time just to try to get used to all the weights,” Tapscott said.

Soon after joining the department, Tapscott earned her EMT license.

“You think of just putting out fire and trash fires and wrecks but we run everything from nose bleeds to headaches, to stomach aches, everything. It doesn’t matter what it is,” Tapscott said.

For Tapscott, the physical hurdles that come with being a firefighter have become easier over time. However, ten and a half years later, the mental effects are still hard to cope with.

“So, the physical you can train for, the physical you can get through and the physical you can overcome. The mental is very very difficult,” Tapscott said.

According to Chief Thornton, the mental and physical challenges of the job have always shied people away from becoming firefighters. As new industries move to North Alabama, recruitment has become even harder.

“Over the years we’ve always had really good benefits but new industries have come around and they’ve got some really good benefits, really good retirements and they pay a lot of money,” Thornton said. “Back in 98, we had hundreds of people that applied for a few positions and our last open process, I think we had around 50 or 60 people.”

Thornton said the goal right now is finding dedicated folks, male or female, who want to serve their communities.

“We want good people that care about the job, care about the people, care about their crews. That’s what we look for. Good character,” Thornton said.

According to Thornton, there are two primary hiring processes including an open hiring process and a lateral hiring process. A candidate with no fire training can apply through the open process, take a physical test (CPAT) and complete an interview.

“The first thing we need people to do is take a test. It’s the same test they give throughout the state. It’s a timed test,” Thornton said. “They have to climb what’s called a step mill with a weighted vest. There are several different exercises, obstacles, and they are all fire-related. It simulates swinging an ax, or pulling a dummy out of a house. Each one of the exercises simulates what they do at a fire ground.”

Once the candidate is hired, he or she will go through the department’s recruit school, which is 9 to 13 weeks.

Individuals who already have firefighter certifications can apply through the lateral hiring program, which is typically open year-round.

Lieutenant Tapscott also recommends utilizing the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa and encourages candidates to get their EMT license.

Her greatest piece of advice is to start training early.

“Don’t think you are in good enough shape for it,” she said. “Some people are, but for a lot of people it’s a lot more than what they realize.”

Tapscott said it’s also important for applicants to remember the schedule most firefighters deal with. They work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. It’s not a typical 9 to 5 job, but for Tapscott, it’s worth every second.

“It’s something we don’t do for the money, at all,” Tapscott said. “You do miss some stuff while you are here, but it’s actually a very fun and rewarding job.”


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