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Veterans welcome in newest generation of firefighters

Nov. 12, 2012 - 06:15PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 12, 2012 - 06:15PM  |  
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When Marland Lawrence entered the Newark, N.J., fire academy after separating from the Navy, he was surprised to find out he was not the only veteran in his class. Almost everyone else also had just left the military.

Lawrence was one of 28 veterans in Newark's 41st fire recruit class, which graduated in October. Three civilians also were sworn in.

It is not a coincidence. New Jersey's largest city has spent the past few years actively recruiting veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in its fire department. It is the first time the department has recruited veterans since World War II.

"They bring that life experience, the camaraderie, the teamwork, and already knowing a quasi-military structure," said John G. Centanni, the Newark fire chief. "They know rank and how to take orders. They bring all of that to the table."

Newark runs a veterans program in its city hall in partnership with the GI Go Fund, a New Jersey nonprofit that helps veterans make the transition to civilian life.

"Veterans are perfect to do this job," said Jack S. Fanous, director of the fund. "They're not going to be afraid of this job when they come back home."

The city's veterans office recruited returning veterans through phone calls and job fairs and told veterans who contacted it about the firefighting job possibilities. New Jersey and other states give veterans preference in their civil service exams.

The recruits were sworn in at the New Hope Baptist Church. The firefighters' pipe band, clad in kilts and playing bagpipes and drums, played while marching down the aisle of the church. The recruits, clad in dress uniform, sat in the front and snapped up when called to attention.

The recruits are "one of the most historic class[es] of firefighters this city has seen in many, many years," Mayor Cory Booker said. "They were heroes before they even put on the firefighter's uniform."

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Newark received $7.1 million in a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant last year. The grants make recruiting and hiring veterans a priority. Newark has hired 55 firefighters with the three-year grant.

Nationally, veterans have struggled to find work after returning home. The nationwide unemployment rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 9.7 percent in September. The Department of Justice awarded more than $111 million to 220 cities and counties in June to create law enforcement positions. A bill that would establish a $1 billion jobs program for veterans is stalled in Congress.

"Men and women who leave the military, there is a void when they are leaving, and oftentimes they want to fill that,"said Kevin Schmiegel, a Marine veteran who founded and leads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes Program. "I think they gravitate toward service-oriented positions. There's a greater mission and a focus on service."

Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire fighters, said that while veterans have always been in the firefighting ranks, the push toward actively hiring returning veterans is new. As the ability to hire returns to municipalities with the improving economy, Zack said, the organization hopes that more veterans are hired into firefighting jobs.

The Boston Fire Department recruited 49 military veterans this year.

When Lawrence got back from serving in Bahrain, he couldn't find a job. With his unemployment running out, he went to Newark's veterans office, which helped him enroll in college and take the civil service exam.

The fact that nearly everyone had military service created a competitive but collaborative spirit that carried the group through the 12-week training, Lawrence said.

"There was a special bond," he said.

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