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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Hundreds Turn Out for 4 Oxnard Firefighter Jobs

Employment: Many line up outside City Hall as early as 4 a.m. By day's end, 872 submit applications for entry-level posts.

April 14, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — John Wright holds a bachelor's degree in biology and cavorts with entertainers and high-rollers as manager of a Las Vegas nightclub. Yet the 25-year-old drove five hours to apply for an entry-level position at the Oxnard Fire Department--a job that at least on paper requires only a high school education and a driver's license.

Wright was vying for a spot on the 87-member department, one of nearly 900 would-be firefighters pouring into Oxnard City Hall on Friday. Although most came from closer cities--Santa Barbara, Glendale, San Diego--all were just as eager to be considered for one of the four positions.

"I'm going on six years now and have taken about 20 different tests," said Javier Huizar, 34, of Venice. He juggles a full-time job at a grocery store in Santa Monica with volunteer work for the firefighter reserve in Culver City--in addition to applying for fire department openings throughout the region.

"I think the high pay is what draws people, and the rewards of the job. It's dangerous, but at the same time it's exciting," he said.

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Entry-level firefighter jobs are one of the few positions for which supply of qualified applicants always exceeds demand, Oxnard Battalion Chief Brad Windsor said.

The jobs in Oxnard pay about $40,200 a year, though overtime can double that salary. And firefighters work an average of eight 24-hour shifts per month, which allows for time off--another alluring attribute.

When the Oxnard department tried to limit applicants to 150 in 1998, people camped for days outside the station. This year the pool included all those who could drop off applications in person during one full day, enabling more to participate.

"It's such a competitive field," Windsor said. "Once people get in a department, they stay for life."

The entry-level jobs have become even more competitive as departments such as Ventura's have moved toward hiring only firefighter-paramedics. In Ventura, officials are stepping up efforts to attract applicants for about 10 firefighter trainee-paramedic jobs to be filled by September, said Mike Lavery, Ventura's assistant chief.

"Since we require a paramedic license, the pool of applicants is not as large," he said. The jobs, which are open for applications until May 18, pay from $35,676 to $43,386 a year.

In downtown Oxnard on Friday morning, about 180 people--90% of them men in their early 20s--lined up on the street beginning as early as 4 a.m. From 8 a.m. on, they continued to stream in, applications in hand. Some wore flip-flops and board shorts still sandy from the beach, while others showed up in business suits, cell phones attached to their belts.

Charlie Donlon, 22, of Oxnard, an emergency response technician for an ambulance company in Ojai, was looking for a better opportunity.

"I want to help out more people closer to home," he said. "There are so many people who want to do it, but it's harder and harder."

Kendra Kane, 25, of Lompoc, could not agree more. An EMT in Glendale, she had applied to two fire departments before hearing of the Oxnard job.

"It's kind of scary--I'm just hoping to do my best," she said.

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The increased competition has resulted in candidates with more impressive qualifications. Many have degrees in fire technology, years as volunteer officers, and paramedic training.

"The caliber of people we get today has increased, so it makes the decisions harder," Oxnard Fire Chief Joe Milligan said. "I feel for them. We'd like to be able to hire them all."

All 872 who turned in applications Friday will take a written test, which will eliminate about 30% of the pool, officials said. The test costs the city about $10 per person, which is the reason behind efforts to limit the number of applicants.

From there, Windsor said, screening for experience will narrow the number to 120 people who will be invited to take the physical agility test. Those who finally are hired will have gone through two interviews, a medical examination and a background check before starting the eight-week firefighter academy.

Wright, the Las Vegas resident, hopes to be among them. He dropped plans to become a chiropractor or optometrist to pursue the fire service--a profession he has admired since childhood.

His interest was piqued about five years ago when a friend in the Las Vegas department took him on a ride-along.

"In the engine, hearing all the bells, whistles and sirens and smelling all the smells--I just know I would never get that feeling sitting in an office or doing research," he said.

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