A career that takes time but is worthwhile

Crystal Valdez, Features Editor

Students at Bakersfield College who are interested in a career with any fire department should be well equipped with patience and perseverance, because the process is far from easy.

Three crewmembers of Bakersfield’s Fire Station 8 each experienced similar hardships on their way to being hired as firefighters. Firefighter Ryan Parker, 35, fire engineer Marlon Ward, 38, and fire captain Tim Ortiz, 45, shared information about what it takes to be hired into the service.

According to the crew, the process to achieve a career in the fire service takes a lot of steps and time.

“On average, it probably takes about five to six years to be hired as a firefighter,” said Ortiz.

Fire service students must begin by taking fire technology classes, along with general education classes, at their local community college; this typically takes two years. Afterward, they must take classes in order to be certified as an emergency medical technician, which usually takes four months. After gaining that certification, they must get into a Firefighter 1 Academy, which runs for up to six months.

All three crewmembers underwent this process in California, which requires that those who seek a career in fire service to take a California Physical Agility Test. Once this process is complete, they may begin testing with different departments in order to be considered.

After an average of three years, they may begin testing with whatever department they would like to work for.

“I bounced from one area of California to another as I was testing,” said Parker. “I’ve taken probably 15-20 tests.”

“It was a huge learning experience, just taking the tests. When I was hired, the cut off score was 96% [pause] out of 100 questions,” he added.

Parker said that when he tested in Bakersfield at the Rabobank Arena years ago, there were at least 1,000 people taking the test. Only 11 were hired.

Ortiz added that when hiring, fire departments tend to look for people with either a lot of education and some experience, or a lot of experience and some education. A good combination of both is typically expected.

“The more you have of each, the better you’re off, which is part of the reason why it takes so long to be hired,” Ortiz said.

Many members of the Bakersfield Fire Department have earned an associate’s degree in fire science, but nowadays, a bachelor’s degree is often advantageous.

Both Ortiz and Ward went through the BC fire program while Parker went through the Santa Ana College program after graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Something people who are interested in a career in the fire service can do to gain experience is to work as a (volunteer) reserve firefighter.

The crew has a reserve firefighter at their station who has dreamed of being a firefighter for as long as he could remember.

Tucker Brown, 23, has been doing volunteer work for 13 months and says it does not feel like work at all.

“I love coming to the station. Along with just having the desire of helping people and benefiting people’s lives… this is definitely the place for that. I love the brother and sisterhood about it. Basically you’re like a family,” said Brown.

Brown earned his AA in Fire Technology through BC.

“I had a little incident in my garage where I actually set my garage on fire, it was a big fire too. It was a gasoline fire… I put everything out, and at that moment I realized [after] the accomplishment I made at a young age like that and the excitement I felt that I wanted to do this for a living,” Brown shared.

Brown said it has not been easy. He hopes to be hired specifically by the Bakersfield Fire Department, but he said being hired by any department would be a great opportunity as well.

Many young men and women travel up and down California to take tests in hopes of being hired. Brown estimates that he has taken the test 23 times.

Discouragement is part of the process, according to Brown. When asked what advice he would give to those who seek a career in the fire service, Brown said, “Don’t quit.”

He went on to say, “I myself am able to pick myself up. A lot of senior firefighters, even captains, will tell you that it’s a rigorous process. You just gotta keep pushing through. The ones who aren’t in the fire service are the ones that quit.”

Crewmembers found it difficult to be hired into the fire service. It took Ortiz 10 years to be hired, Ward a total of six years (including three years of fire service in the Air Force), and Parker took six years to be hired as well.

“It’s a great career,” said Ward. “Although it takes a long time to get here, it’s well worth the wait.”

What often eliminates people from even the option of waiting are the background checks.

Aspiring firefighters are drug tested at the start of the process, and background checks occur throughout the hiring process. Questions about drug use and DUIs are often asked during interviews.

According to Parker, those who make the background checks look through records page by page. They make calls to friends, roommates, and neighbors, almost everyone who can tell them more about someone looking to be hired. They also check social media.

“[Background process] That’s what eliminates a lot of people. They don’t expect to find anyone perfect. They just want to see how truthful you are and what kind of person you are,” said Ward.

According to Parker, some departments do not like bad credit or countless traffic tickets, despite being paid off.

“Keep your record clean and be careful who you live with because all of that can come back to bite you,” he added. “Interviewers will ask you everything under the sun.”

After all the years it took for them to be where they are, the crew members agree that a career in the fire service is rewarding, and although it takes hard work and a great amount of patience, it is well worth the wait.

According to Ortiz, of everyone who is hired through the Bakersfield Fire Department, an estimated 95% went through the BC program.

Ortiz said, “Everyday is something new. You never know what to expect… no two calls are the same… it’s really fun because you just never know what to expect.


[Photos by Joe Bergman]