DULUTH – Evan Jamar didn't know what his dream job was until his dream came true.
"It's like waking up for Christmas every morning," he said after his first 24-hour shift as a Duluth firefighter last month. "I jumped in not really knowing what I was getting into and never looked back."
The Duluth Fire Department and fire departments across the state are looking for more Evan Jamars.
It wasn't long ago departments were routinely overwhelmed with an abundance of applicants for a few openings. They now need to aggressively promote themselves to fill those vacancies, especially as they seek to diversify their workforce.
"It's really kind of perplexing. I'm not sure why people aren't as interested," said Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj. "How can you broaden that candidate pool, to have more people take the test and potentially increase the number and diversity of candidates we see?"
In Duluth, openings that used to draw hundreds of applicants now might garner a few dozen people who take the required exam. St. Paul has seen its applicant pool drop from the thousands to the hundreds in recent years as well.
"It's the trend all over," said Chris Parsons, a captain with the St. Paul Fire Department and president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union. "If you go up to the Iron Range, Hibbing is having a really hard time finding applicants."
Some see the time commitment for firefighting, long considered a noble profession and solid lifelong career, as a deterrent.
"Time off is what we're seeing as more valued than making money," Parsons said.
Krizaj said he has seen the same culture shift in the workforce toward valuing downtime and flexible schedules, especially as workloads continue to increase.
"We need to be making sure people know what they're getting into," he said.
To that end, the Duluth Fire Department is launching a campaign to get into schools and on social media feeds to increase interest in firefighting careers, especially among women and communities of color, ahead of more hiring this fall and over the next several years as retirements increase.
"If we meet a kid at Lincoln Park Middle School on career night and see them 10 years later in an interview, that's pretty exciting," Krizaj said. "People remember that stuff."
Nationwide, 20,300 more firefighters will be added to departments over the next decade on top of expected turnover, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is faster than average growth compared with other industries. The median wage nationally is about $56,000 a year, and in the Duluth area, the median firefighter wage is about $23 an hour, according to state data.
"It's your ticket to the middle class no matter where you're from," Parsons said. "It's not a job, it's a career."
Modern firefighting involves knocking down relatively few fires a year for career departments like Duluth (as opposed to volunteer-run operations).
There have been an average of 97 structure fires per year in Duluth over the past five years — and last year's high of 141 structure fires represented just 1% of all calls the department responded to.
"Things have changed. We're more of an all-hazards response team," Krizaj said, and that sometimes means showing up when the public doesn't expect it, such as on medical calls. "People often don't realize what we do, and I think that goes for recruits as well."
Change has come quickly for the department, by far Minnesota's busiest north of the Twin Cities.
When Krizaj joined the Duluth Fire Department in 1997, the department would respond to about 5,000 calls a year. Last year crews answered nearly 14,000 calls — or on average, a call every 37 minutes.
"The demand for service, the use of 911 in general has increased," Krizaj said, keeping the department's roughly 150 employees in near-constant motion. "On their off days they're more tired, and the days of them coming in and sleeping through the night is very rare; it almost never happens anymore."
That can hurt retention as much as recruiting, as firefighters are suddenly more inclined to move between departments, a break from the 30-year tenure many would put in at a single agency in years past.
"As we spread a wider net trying to recruit people from other areas, you can't blame them for wanting to move back (away from Duluth)," Krizaj said.
For two weeks in April, fire after fire erupted on the western edge of Duluth.
The "mini-city" at Lake Superior College's 120-acre fire training campus saw a rush of activity as seven of Duluth's new fire recruits climbed through burning windows, cut holes in shipping-container buildings and capped off intensive exercises before beginning their careers.
"You're not going to take a welding program and never touch a welder — why would we do that with firefighting students?" instructor and Duluth firefighter Damon Laurion said.
Interest in the Lake Superior College firefighting program has remained consistent over the past several years, though enrollment took an expected dip last fall due to the pandemic.
The challenge for the Duluth Fire Department is persuading more of those students to stay, since many increasingly come from 150 miles away or farther.
The department also needs to build more local interest in the program, Krizaj said, especially after pandemic restrictions meant community engagement was "almost nonexistent" over the last year.
"Engaging with youth and even some adults looking for a career change means answering questions and being there to give them an honest answer," he said. "It's more than looking at the fire trucks."
At Lake Superior College, the realistic fire simulations give students a chance to find out firsthand if they are heading into the right field, Laurion said.
"If it's not for you, you find that out quickly," he said, though the inverse also proves true.
Jamar's first shift included several medical calls and a false-alarm fire, but the 27-year-old was full of energy the day after.
"I've never been so excited to haul around so much gear in my life," he said with a laugh. "Getting a job in the fire service has been tougher than expected, but it's been a dream come true being able to serve the community and be around the people I grew up with."