GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The ‘help wanted’ sign is out at the Grand Rapids Fire Department.

The department began accepting applications for firefighters on April 1.

Potential firefighters also have a new place to find out if they’re physically up to the task.

Physical agility, like the ability to haul a 165-pound dummy, is a big part of the recruitment process.

You also need to prove you can climb stairs, pull down a ceiling that’s hiding flames and hammer through a wall, all while wearing a 50-pound vest — roughly the same weight as the gear a firefighter wears into a fire.

To help with the effort, the sales floor in a former thrift store on South Division that is now owned by the fire department has been turned into a Certified Physically Agility Test, or CPAT, test course.

“Everything you see here is part of fire ground activities. If you can perform this job, you can do the job,” said Grand Rapids firefighter Gavin Floyd, who helped put together the course.

The department, which is accepting firefighter applications through the end of June, is also taking a different approach to recruitment these days.

“There are times when we found that we would want to capture people’s interest. But we didn’t know when the next test would be,” said Grand Rapids Fire Department Battalion Chief Eric Freeman.

That often resulted in up to an eight-month gap between the time a recruit applied to the department and was accepted into the training academy.

The set-up creates challenges, especially in a tight labor market.

Many times, applicants were lost to other departments or even other careers.

Under the GRFD’s new, continuous hiring model, that time has been cut down to as little as two months.

“That way, we can keep a continuous eligible list going, and be ready to hire at a moment’s notice, as opposed to a long drawn-out process that we’ve had before,” said Freeman.

Freeman said they’re also working to recruit more home-grown talent.

“We really are looking to get the message across to people that are from Grand Rapids. We don’t have a lot of people who are actually from Grand Rapids that really know how to connect with the fire department,” said Freeman, who along with running operations at fires and other emergencies in the city, is in charge of GRFD’s recruiting efforts.

He’s trying to get the message out to Grand Rapids’ minority communities about the role they can play in improving the quality of life in their own neighborhood.

“Anybody is going to relate to someone who is from their background, from their culture, from their area, speaks their language. So that’s one of the reasons we’re looking for this diverse group,” said Freeman.

He has a message for Grand Rapids’ residents considering applying to be a firefighter in the city:

“This is something you can do. This is your community. You know the streets better than anyone else. You know this neighborhood better than anyone else. You speak the same language as everyone here. Come on board.”