In December 2007, a big-city fire department on the west coast was accepting 1,000 applications for the position of entry-level firefighter, over a one-day period, after having given out well over 1,000 applications earlier in the week. The job announcement stated only 1,000 applications would be accepted, and to specifically not line up prior to 5:00 a.m. that morning the applications were being accepted.
This was the first time in a number of years the city had reduced the entry-level requirements of either an EMT certificate or a paramedic license to just 18 years of age and a high school diploma or G.E.D. The department was very up front in stating they needed to fill a little over 20 positions and they needed to get more "home grown" people to apply and hopefully get hired. The city, like many other big cities, was trying their best to increase the diversity of their fire department, to mirror the community demographics.
What seemed like a good plan from the administrative side easily turned ugly once people started lining up in advance, long before the 5:00 a.m. time they were asked to do so. Candidates from around the state and I would imagine across the United States planned on camping out, for the sole purpose of trying to ensure their application was one of the first 1,000 applications accepted. Camping out is nothing new for submitting fire service applications.
I remember when I started testing for the position of firefighter in the early 1990's; it was very common to camp out in line just to get an application or to submit an application. In those lines, you would typically find the "die-hard" candidates, the ones who were willing to do what it took to get a job as a firefighter. These were typically your candidates who were either working for other fire departments or were either current or former fire technology students from community colleges.
Well, what should have been a relatively problem-free process immediately turned into a chaotic scene for a variety of reasons, resulting in a large number of unhappy candidates who had not been able to submit an application. Local television news cameras were on scene filming the people camped out in line and even caught the fire chief and city staff members personally selecting people to submit their applications, and not in a first-come, first-serve manner. Allegations were flying that these people being hand selected were not "randomly selected," and were actually relatives of current fire personnel and city staffers, including one of the fire chief's sons.
Apparently the process of randomly (or hand-picking as it appeared to be) selecting candidates did not bode well with virtually everyone involved, except of course to the 1,000 or so who were selected to continue. In the following days, the Mayor agreed to have another day to allow those candidates who were not selected, to submit their applications. They would not give out additional applications; just accept any applications from candidates who had not made the cut that first day. For the most part, this appeared to appease those involved who had not been able to be one of the lucky first 1,000 applications.
I had the chance to talk to a group of my students a few days after this situation; some who had been fortunate to submit an application, some who had not. It was interesting to hear the comments from the students who were all aspiring to become firefighters. Many of them were obviously angry and showing some disdain towards the city and the fire department because of what happened; however, they still wanted to work there. Comments from the students mimicked those comments found on various chat and discussion boards: "the fire chief needs to be terminated," "we need to sue the city," "they passed over numerous candidates who were experienced, and already working for other fire departments," "they were only selecting 'unqualified' candidates," "that they did not take the first 1,000 applications," "that they had lowered their standards," to simply "this is just B.S."
While I can feel the pain as I remember having to test for numerous fire departments, and go through somewhat similar processes (but not as chaotic as this one, which seems to win the prize for most chaotic) trying to get hired as a firefighter, I cannot help but think the following things when I hear such comments after having been employed as a firefighter for more than a few years now:
- Since when are anyone of us "entitled" to a job anywhere, let alone in the fire service? The last time I checked, the only thing we were entitled to was birth, paying taxes and death.
- Does terminating the fire chief solve the problem? Probably not. We have to remember who the fire chief works for - typically the city manager, the mayor, a city council, a board of directors, or some other form of government where they work as an "at will" employee - meaning they can get fired for any reason and they follow the direction of that governing board, regardless of whether they agree with the decisions made above their head and whether or not the decisions align with the wishes of the line firefighting personnel.
- Does suing the city solve the problem? Maybe in the short run, but remember the saying - you may have won the battle, but did you win the war? Probably not. I don't know about you, but I don't want to have gotten my job by suing the city just to get a chance at getting hired. When you typically work for a fire department for 20 to 40 years, something like this will be your reputation for your entire career, and even after you're retired. It will always be, "hey, remember that guy who sued the city just to get hired?" Sorry, but I'd rather be known for the more positive things I have accomplished in my career. I realize anybody can sue anybody for anything. But remember what happens if you win - where do you think the money to pay the lawyers and even pay you and anyone else comes from, should there be a monetary settlement? That money will probably come out of the city budget, which is meant to pay for the staffing's wages and benefits, keep fire stations open, etc. Just because you get the chance to apply now, it doesn't mean you'll even get hired (do you think they want to hire the person that sued them? Come on, get real - would you want to hire someone that sued you?).
- Regarding the comment of passing over numerous candidates who were "more qualified" because they were working for other fire departments; remember that the job announcement did not mention they were looking for "lateral transfers" or other experience. An interesting comment in the newspaper was that many people were in line wearing their fire department uniforms. I don't know about you, but if I were testing for another fire department, I wouldn't be wearing my fire department uniform. That just isn't cool, and doesn't show much respect or loyalty to the department you're planning on leaving.
- As for the term "qualified" candidate, that is a very subjective term. What constitutes being the most qualified candidate? The best resume? The most degrees? The most years of experience? Fire experience versus no fire experience? The most certificates? See where I'm going? What one person thinks makes someone the best-qualified candidate may drastically differ from another person's opinion. A fire department does not hire a resume - they hire a person. Just because someone does not have every certificate or degree out there or does not have a lot of years (or any for that matter) of fire experience does not mean they will be a bad hire or even "unqualified." In reality, a fire department should be hiring for a positive, can-do attitude, and for what they think will be a "good fit" for their department, their culture, and their community. I know that seems subjective, but think back to 20 years or more, when there really wasn't a push for candidates to have EMT certificates, paramedic licenses, and Firefighter 1 certificates, etc. Think of the veteran firefighters currently on the job, those with 20 plus years on the job. Most of them did not have those certificates or degrees. Yes, they typically came with experience from the trades, but the key is that they were trainable.
- As for lowering standards, the last thing I think a department should do is lower a hiring standard. Instead, we should try to bring the level of candidates up to our standard, to ensure the standards are not lowered. However, in this case, the city knew if they wanted to attract home grown talent, they might have to not require the two common things they have required over the last few years - an EMT or paramedic card. However, if I'm not mistaken, there was a stipulation that an EMT card was required by the start of the academy, so it wasn't like they were going to have to put the person through EMT school. At least they were up front in the news stories prior to the accepting of applications; they knew they needed diversity and if they required EMT or paramedic cards to apply, they might be limiting their diversity pool to choose candidates from. Good, bad or indifferent, it is what it is and a city has an obligation to it's community to do it's best to reflect the demographics of that community.
- As for not taking the first 1,000 applications, if you read the job announcement, it stated they would accept 1,000 applications. I didn't notice that they would take the first 1,000 - just 1,000. I realize that is vague and can be construed different ways, but if you read it carefully, they didn't violate what they said they would do.
- Regarding the process being B.S., welcome to reality. I'm not sticking up for what occurred, but no one fire department or city is perfect. There are always going to be mistakes made and unhappy people, especially when you limit the number of candidates. For anyone who works in public safety for more than a few years, you come to realize things are not always perfect and that there is always a better way to do something. Yes, maybe it was B.S., but what are you really going to do about it? It happened. Yes, you can be the one who is obviously frustrated and angry and bitter, but where is that going to get you in the long run? Nowhere, and your frustration, anger and bitterness will obviously show up at some point in the future, either during the hiring process or after you get hired (assuming you are fortunate enough to have that occur).
Could the process have been smoother and user-friendlier? Of course it could have been. However, we can Monday morning quarterback it forever and it still won't change what happened. I even heard of frustrated candidates making phone calls or sending e-mails to the fire chief, city staff, and others, expressing how mad they were, and how disappointed they were in the process. I realize a squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, but in this case, do you really want to be the one who is sticking out - in an annoying way? Don't get me wrong, I think we should stick up for what we feel is right. However, there is a right way and an appropriate way to do so, and it is also important to learn how to pick your battles.
The bright side is for those candidates who do still want to work there, and have some experience and qualifications they typically look for, you will have your opportunity at some point in the future. The positive thing about big city fire departments is that they typically test for firefighter pretty regularly. I truly think things are done for a reason, good or bad. If you didn't make the cut this time, it wasn't meant to be. However, that doesn't mean you won't have your chance in the future, and it may be the near future. I took the test for the department I work for twice over a couple of years, and I even took another big city test a few times over a couple of years, so it is not uncommon to get a second chance within a year or two to take the test for that same department, before getting hired as a firefighter.
What I ask of you if you were a part of this process, heard about this process, or ever has such a process occur to you - either in your pursuit of becoming a firefighter or after getting hired, you really need to think whether it is worth getting emotionally charged and attached to what has transpired. More times than not, we act based on emotion as opposed to rationality, and that can get us into trouble, making us say or do things we will regret later on.
I have nothing but respect for the fire department in question and their personnel; I personally know and respect many members of various ranks. What occurred was unfortunate, and the damage is probably done. But if nothing else, it is hopefully a learning experience for all of us - whether we work there or aspire to work there or anywhere as a firefighter for that matter.
Lastly, I hate to be blunt, but we need to remember that it is not a right that we are hired by a fire department - it is a privilege. Unfortunately some folks think they are entitled to do certain things in life, such as submitting applications. There is a fire department out there for everyone, as long as you don't give up and keep on testing. Maybe this fire department was not for you, as difficult as that may be to swallow. Or, maybe it was. If you truly think it is the department for you, you'll take their test again and try to not get caught up in the current emotions, as it will make you look very negatively. Would you like to hire someone who is negative, especially about the department they are applying for?
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department and an instructor for the Chabot College, CA, Fire Technology Program. Steve is a 16-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a master's degree in emergency services administration, has authored numerous fire service articles featured in the leading fire service publications and is a regular speaker and presenter at fire service events. He has also mentored and coached numerous entry-level and promotional level candidates. You can find valuable fire service entry level and promotional preparation information and his contact information on his website: www.chabotfire.com. 3