Digital revamp improves, increases hiring pool of Hilton Head firefighters

astice@islandpacket.comMay 7, 2013 

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Firefighter candidate Joe Zoffoli of Newburgh, N.Y. moves a metal sled six feet during part of his physical strength test Sunday morning at Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue Headquarters on Summit Drive.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

Hiring for firefighters and paramedics on Hilton Head Island has gone digital, bringing a big increase in candidates, some coming from as far away as Hawaii.

The Town of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division has revamped the way it recruits and screens applicants, in the hopes of attracting more qualified and diverse candidates.

Before, thick application packets were sent through the mail and tests were scheduled over the phone. Now, the division has an online portal to make applying easier for potential hires.

It has also expanded its recruiting efforts through online job postings, as well as local fliers and ads -- resulting in more than 800 initial applications since the process went digital in January. That's more than double the applications received during the last recruiting drive two years ago, said town senior human resources administrator Angie Stone.

The division creates a hiring pool of about 80 to 100 candidates every two years so it can quickly pick replacements when positions open, according to Deputy Chief of Operations Brad Tadlock.

Before this year, screening applicants was "very time-intensive," Stone said. Human resources was inundated with phone calls, to schedule each candidate for physical tests and to let them know where they stood in the process.

Now, candidates can create an online profile on the division's website, submit applications and certifications electronically, and log in whenever they want to see if they've made the next round. They can also click through testimonials from current division firefighters and check out salary and benefits information.

"We've automated everything," Stone said.

Firefighters who wish to get in the pool must first pass a written test offered in four places around the country and come to Hilton Head Island for a physical test and interview.

Last weekend, two opportunities for the physical tests were offered at the division's training center on Summit Drive. They included racing up four flights of stairs with a hose pack, a simulated ladder-hoisting exercise and a forcible-entry simulation, Tadlock said. If they passed, candidates had a chance to shower and change before interviews.

Joe Zoffoli of Newburgh, N.Y., drove about 15 hours to participate. He is an IBM industrial firefighter with about 10 years of experience as a volunteer, but there aren't many opportunities in his area.

Zoffoli found the Hilton Head job on firejobs.com and took the written test near his home.

Some departments he has applied to still require applications through the mail, which puts "a wrench in the process," Zoffoli said.

As one of the 86 candidates chosen for the pool, Zoffoli said he is now uploading his certifications online.

Though some of the candidates came from as far away as Hawaii, the division pushed recruitment locally with fliers in businesses, schools and through La Isla magazine, Stone said. About a third of the pool is from South Carolina and Georgia.

Tadlock said the pool allows him to find people with the necessary training for openings, which is particularly helpful when slots for paramedics come up because their training typically takes more than a year.

Most turnover is a result of retirements -- Tadlock estimated that about 40 percent of the staff has worked there less than five years -- so being able to quickly find candidates with the right experience grows more important, he said.

The division has one vacancy and expects another job to open soon. The pool will provide candidates for the division through 2015.

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