From a Ventura fireman's wife - How to become a firefighter

By Anonymous 11/20/2008

Regarding your “help wanted ad” for firefighters, published on Oct. 23, let me clarify a few things, as the wife of a firefighter. For starters, there are plenty of applicants applying for firefighting jobs; in fact it’s quite competitive. Some of these applicants are qualified, based on the requirements you note in the editorial, but there is more involved than minimum qualifications, and the pool of worthy candidates is small, considering the applicants know they can make more money at other departments. Sure, $78,000 sounds good to those working for less, but it pales in comparison to the salaries earned at many departments in California (as noted in the recent article from a L.A. firefighter). To answer your initial question, Cole states that it is “necessary to boost salaries and pensions … so that salaries would be attractive to new recruits,” and maybe that is part of the reason why firefighters are receiving raises.

As a taxpayer and as a wife who spends many nights alone, I agree that qualified firefighters should be hired to fill in vacancies, and I hope the city allocates enough money to employ them, but you oversimplify the requirements to become a firefighter, which is insulting to the department’s current staff who endured the complicated hiring process. While we both want a fully staffed department, where employees are not overworked, it should not be achieved at the expense of simplifying the minimum qualifications and thus attracting people who are not cut out for the position. Your condescending tone — “even 10-year-old junior lifeguards can become certified [in CPR]” — discredits the hardships firefighters faced both in becoming eligible and in earning permanent positions.

The educational criteria for an applicant includes more than you note in your article. To clarify, a $250 EMT class is not a simple endeavor, as you make it seem by only mentioning the cost. My husband took the six-month-long class at a volunteer fire department, and I attended an intense four-week program through the military. Also, the class is followed by clinical time in a hospital emergency room and on an ambulance. As for the National Registry Test, written and skills examinations are usually administered upon completion of training.

Furthermore, a paramedic “course” entails more than “one or two semesters.” A person must first take the required medical classes as prerequisites before even applying to a paramedic academy. These tough prerequisite classes include anatomy, physiology and basic arrhythmia. Paramedic licensing programs are typically three semesters long and include an internship in which a student treats people and is evaluated by an experienced paramedic who passes or fails him. In the case of failure, the student has to repeat the whole course again, some never getting passed their internships. To obtain a paramedic license with the National Registry, a person must also pass comprehensive written and hands-on tests after completing an academy and internship. So, while four semesters isn’t an incredibly lengthy amount of time, a person must dedicate that two years to medical training, something he or she didn’t necessarily anticipate as an aspiring firefighter, since as you note, “being a licensed paramedic in the state of California is a unique requirement of the city of Ventura’s fire department.”

Yes, you’re right — fire technology classes and fire science degrees are preferred. Fluency in Spanish is also recommended. Completion of a fire academy, like the one at Oxnard College, serves as good preparation as well and is a prerequisite at most departments. In sum, two years of medical classes, plus an associate’s degree in fire science is equivalent to four years of schooling, which doesn’t account for experience.

An applicant must additionally have experience as a paramedic in the medical field. My husband worked on an ambulance for a year while he desperately sought employment on a fire department. While working on the ambulance paid him a whopping $11.85 an hour, he took on another full time job — trying to get hired on a fire department. After obtaining his paramedic license, it took him almost two years, dozens of lengthy applications, written exams, several panel and chiefs’ interviews, a thorough background investigation and a complete medical evaluation to land a job with Ventura City. As for other qualifications, he is a U.S. armed forces veteran and a former Forest Service and volunteer firefighter, not to mention a paramedic with fire science and Spanish classes under his belt.

Please know that it’s a taxing endeavor to become a paramedic, and firefighters don’t set out to join the field because they’re medically minded; they want to fight fires. Earning a paramedic license is a new mandate and a “unique requirement” of Ventura City, as you accurately note; therefore, not all aspiring firefighters naturally hold paramedic licenses. And not all paramedics long to become firefighters. The medic/fire dichotomy is a new merge, but dedicated firefighters take on both roles because they believe in their job, which is to serve you — the community — to the best of their abilities.

Even those who qualify from an educational standpoint don’t necessarily meet the other conditions. Personality traits play a big part in being accepted on a fire crew. A firefighter must be a team player, an agreeable person, and a motivated employee who is clean-cut and flexible to work any day, any time, without notice, and for up to 21 days when deployed to wild fires and natural disasters, such as hurricanes, where water and urban search and rescue teams are utilized. A firefighter’s schooling does not end when he is hired either. An applicant must first attend and pass a demanding 16-week fire academy, undergo one year of probation as an at-will employee, and on-the-job training continues throughout his entire career.

To illustrate what it means to be truly qualified, I want to point out that several people were recently hired to fill in vacancies, which would’ve fully staffed the department, and yet we still have unfilled positions; hence, some of the recruits were already let go. The “five positions currently available” exist because the people who initially seemed qualified didn’t measure up. These recruits didn’t pass medical examinations, couldn’t meet the physical demands or, as in most cases, didn’t pull their weight at the fire station and with the fire crew.

The four people you note, as having “left the department in the last four years” must be people who voluntarily left after probation. Just because only four firefighters have left the department doesn’t necessarily equate to four vacancies, either: You must also consider that positions frequently open up as people promote within the department.

As for the “odd hours” you mention, I want to elaborate. This will be the third consecutive Thanksgiving my husband has worked. He has been with the department almost three years, and thankfully, this is the first time he has been scheduled for duty on Christmas Day. Over the holiday season last year, he worked Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

You ask, why are firefighters “getting raises during a time when people aren’t getting raises?” This is because theirs are well deserved and long overdue. It’s unfortunate that our country is experiencing a recession, and the economy is negatively affecting workers, but one of the highlights of firefighting is job security. If firefighters are up for a raise, then it is not fair to punish them and deny the increase based on a depressed economy. And is a mere $78,000 too much to pay someone who has one of the most dangerous and stressful jobs on the planet? Someone who literally saves lives on a daily basis?

I write this because I don’t want the public to think less of the firefighting profession and thus object to paying them what they deserve. Based on what I know from personal experience, I expand on the requirements, in order to paint a clearer picture of what is expected of an applicant. While I agree that we, as a community, should advertise for Ventura City Fire, call applicants to action, and hope to staff up our local department, let us not recruit under-qualified people who will waste the hiring committee’s time and taxpayers’ money, as our efforts will only then create additional vacancies.   

The “fireman’s wife” asked to remain anonymous.

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