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Missoula fire coping with retirements; pandemic has slowed training and recruitment

City Fire Chief Jeff Brandt said the department has had several retirements, but with COVID-19, back filling the positions isn’t easy. The pandemic has slowed training and recruitment. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

While the cornavirus pandemic has put a pinch on the nation’s economy and tasked its healthcare system, it’s also causing other challenges, including staffing and training for current and future firefighters.

Missoula Fire Chief Jeff Brandt described the past fiscal year as challenging and said the department may struggle with staffing issues over the coming weeks and months.

“The COVID-19 impact that hit us in the fire department has been very significant,” he said. “But as of Monday, we’re back to full staffing. We have a very health workforce and a very motivated workforce that got us through the last couple months.”

Five Missoula firefighters tested positive for COVID-19 in June, and while the department was able to cover the shifts, hardly missing a step, the virus had an impact and it’s not likely over.

Brandt said the station is currently down four firefighters due to retirement and is looking to fill the positions. But with the pandemic lurking, firefighter training and recruiting has slowed.

“We’ll have a challenge with our state consortium where we recruit our firefighters from and through that process,” said Brandt, who serves as the consortium’s vice chair. “We’re looking for successful ways to run 300 to 400 firefighters safety through a testing process.”

Brandt pointed to Washington state as a model of success for recruitment and training during the pandemic. Others around the country haven’t been so luck, and “everything is on pause.”

“We’ve got some challenges there to make sure we have the staffing we have is proper, and to provide service in all the districts,” he said. “We’re looking at ways to improve our service in the city and that balanced with staffing and the ability to have those folks available. And if not, it must balance with the overtime ability to bring those folks in outside their regular schedule.”