Where is Everyone? The Public Safety Recruitment Crisis

Jim Aleski

November 18, 2022

Suppose you work in public safety, seemingly anywhere on Earth right now. In that case, you're probably talking about either current or impending staffing crises at your agency. Law enforcement, firefighting, EMS, you name it. Unfortunately, in far too many places, more people are leaving these professions than trying to join them.

These ebbs and flows are not uncommon. When unemployment is low, public-sector jobs tend to be in less demand. Private sector jobs often offer better starting pay and more flexibility than public sector ones.

These days, private sector jobs are much more likely to provide work-from-home options. These options mean you can live in a different city, state, or even time zone than your company! Being home for your family more or not having to commute are employment perks that are hard to beat! And although I'm sure somebody is working on this, they've yet to figure out how to remotely staff paramedic units, ladder trucks, or patrol cars.

For now at least, Robocops, robofirefighters, and robo EMS professionals remain something only seen on TV and the movies.

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a wave of retirements in public safety agencies across the United States. Many of these were due to burnout or exposure concerns. Some put down their badges - or had them taken from them - due to vaccination requirements.

Sickness also ravaged the ranks of public safety workers. Federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics showed firefighting, law enforcement, and other protection service jobs had the highest death rates from COVID-19 in 2020. These jobs saw a mortality rate of 60.3 per 100,000 workers, more than double the overall worker COVID-19 rate of 28.6 per 100,000.

Workers in these positions didn't have the ability to work from home or distance themselves from the virus. They were on the front lines of the pandemic, and many of them paid a heavy price for it. Some of them paid the ultimate price.

And now, not unsurprisingly, these positions have been hard to fill. The pandemic shut down many training programs and hiring processes. EMT and paramedic classes were postponed. Cities and states put off their civil service tests. Budget uncertainties held off bringing new people onto the job.

So now, far too many places are facing staffing shortages. As life returns to normal, emergency call volume is returning to pre-COVID levels - or even higher. And there aren't enough responders to keep up.

As a result, public safety employees are now working 100-hour workweeks in many places. Forced overtime is the norm. A recent conversation with a fire chief friend revealed that his agency couldn't even fill several vacancies they had for full-time EMT positions. These were public employment jobs with decent starting salaries, defined benefit pensions, and solid healthcare options. Yet, they did not get any qualified applicants. In fact, they didn't get any applicants whatsoever.

Should we be surprised by this?

Over the last few years, the cost of living has increased considerably. Energy and fuel prices are up nearly 20% over the past year alone. Food prices are up more than 10%. The September 2022 consumer price index rose by 8.2% - nearly a 40-year-high.

Public safety compensation in many places is not keeping up with these rising costs. In addition, healthcare costs have risen nearly 30% in the last year - expenses that are, at least in part, usually passed on to employees. Twenty-eight states have "right-to-work" policies that continue making collective bargaining challenging or outright illegal. And this doesn't even factor in things like growing anti-police sentiments, the crushing workload of emergency medical calls that an ever-aging population is bringing, and the ever-expanding scope of fire service roles and responsibilities in many places.

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) signed legislation eliminating collective bargaining for many public employees and making the Wisconsin a "right to work state" effecting both private and public unions

According to the Upjohn Institute for Unemployment Research, public-sector hiring is at an unprecedented low. Hiring levels are nearly 12% below their 2005 rates and more than 7% below their pre-pandemic levels. They observe that "despite many states and local governments being financially flush due to federal government assistance and strong revenues—at least for now—there seems to be more political momentum to cut taxes rather than increase public-sector hiring."

The 2022 election season was full of candidates calling for public safety reinvestment. For "funding the police." But many of those same candidates also called for reducing costs and lowering taxes. We didn't hear many politicians talking about the need for more firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs on our streets.

These things rarely go hand in hand. The most significant factor attracting people to jobs is compensation. Therefore, we must seriously look and ensure that public safety pay keeps up with the times. In addition, we need to stop stacking the decks against people going into these fields. Anti-police and anti-collective bargaining sentiment creates significant barriers for candidates wanting to enter public safety careers. And we must be bluntly honest and say that the EMS system in nearly all places is flat-out broken. We have an aging population that needs more EMS support than ever, and we must reimagine the EMS profession to keep up with that. The system will collapse if we don't do this.

Public safety workers, as always, continued to do their jobs throughout the pandemic. They will continue to do their jobs during staffing crises. But you can't blame people currently looking at these fields from the outside and not being overly attracted to them. When other careers pay more, give you more time at home with your family, expose you to significantly less risk to your health and safety, and let you avoid being a political football, it's only natural that young people planning their futures will look towards those other options.

Jim Aleski is a 25-year fire service veteran and career engine company Lieutenant in the Philadelphia metro area. Jim serves as a Branding and Content Specialist at NEP Services and formerly served as the Communications/Social Media Director for the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey (PFANJ), the state affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Prior to becoming a career firefighter, Jim responded as a volunteer while working for more than a decade as a media producer. Jim was involved in the production of hundreds of national TV commercials, network branding campaigns, music videos, and corporate communication projects. Jim holds a BS in Mass Communications from Emerson College and earned a MS in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University.