It's good news for a public service agency that puts in a lot of hours keeping us safe in the Northland.  The Duluth Fire Department has welcomed their largest recruit class in decades.  And with that large number of incoming recruits also comes the challenges of navigating through the onboarding process in the midst of a global pandemic.

Last week the Duluth Fire Department welcomed twelve new recruits to the onboarding process.  Once they complete training, they could potentially join the department in a permanent status next year.  During the probationary period, they'll learn the ropes from a variety of different sources.

That training this year is definitely being affected by COVID-19.  Duluth Fire Department Training Officer Damon Laurion explains:

"This onboarding has been challenging by only having four recruits in a room at a time.  We are still going through a lot of the orientation that any new firefighter would receive when they first start, but it's frustrating to not be able to have the group go through the outdoor training initially that we know prepares them for the emergency response calls that we respond to."

Normally, new recruits are hired and spend two weeks going through training at the Lake Superior College Emergency Response Training Center (ERTC).  During that time, recruits generally practice working on everything form how to use a hose in different situations to going through live scenarios that include structure fires, saving simulated victims, and putting out car fires.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this incoming group of twelve recruits will instead perform this training in the spring - but only if positivity rates decrease from what the State of Minnesota and the Northland is seeing today.

Duluth Fire Department fire truck at Maple Grove Road hall in Duluth, MN
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

To deal with the changes that the pandemic has caused, the group of twelve recruits has been split into three shifts to work on assigned rigs at stations.  They'll also receive increased training that all firefighters will go through together. That process will see the recruits joining rank and file fire department members for the Hands On Training (HOT) process.  Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj shares that this is beneficial for everyone:

"More Hands On Training opportunities is something that our firefighters have been asking for.  With our recent retirements, there has been a lot of crew member changes.  This is a great way to increase crew confidence and build trust for both the new hires and experienced firefighters moving into new assignments."

As far as the makeup of the new recruits, more than half of them have local ties.  "Eight are from the local area, with the remaining four coming from as far away as Missouri and South Carolina".  Duluth Fire Chief elaborates:

"We had a really diverse pool this year which is nice to see.  Each person that we hired brings their own story and experience to the department.  That helps each of us learn from each other, and is valuable for any team.  We have been working on our recruiting efforts, and while we are in the infant stages of building our recruiting materials, we hope to see the response that we saw from this group in years to come."

The Duluth Fire Department responded to a large number of calls in 2021 and 2022 has seen a similar situation unfold.  During January the department responded to a large number of highly-visible fires.

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