The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently called for reform to the hiring practices for firefighters in Saint Louis County. The Post argued that forcing county firefighters to go through the Saint Louis County Fire Academy has a disparate impact on African-American firefighters, effectively preventing these firefighters from getting jobs in the county. Regardless of whether race is a factor here, Saint Louis County would benefit from reforming its hiring practices. Hiring only from the county academy prevents fire departments from hiring perfectly qualified firefighters. Unnecessarily limiting the pool of qualified firefighters can harm public safety and drive up the cost of public services.
Suppose you’re a firefighter in the Kansas City region. You’ve worked there a number of years and have done a good job. One day your spouse gets a job offer in Saint Louis County and you consider moving your family across the state. If you want to continue in your profession when you get to the county, you’re going to need to go back to school first; Saint Louis County only allows fire departments to hire firefighters who have been through the Saint Louis County Fire Academy.
The academy only accepts about 40 applicants each session. Applicants who do not already have a job lined up are selected by lottery. This ensures that it’s very hard to become a county firefighter unless you already have a connection to the county fire industry.
Fire departments outside of Saint Louis County do not share this problem. The Saint Louis Fire Department and fire departments in Saint Charles and Jefferson counties hire firefighters who have been through any state-certified fire academy.
Other academies, such as Saint Louis City's fire academy, also typically have more applicants than they can accept. Rather than give preference to some applicants and send the rest through a lottery, the city academy accepts students based on an entrance exam.
At very least, Saint Louis County fire departments should be able to hire firefighters who already work in Missouri without forcing them to pay for and attend another fire training program. The best solution would be to end the Saint Louis County Fire Academy’s monopoly on fire training and allow fire departments to hire firefighters who have attended any state-certified training program.