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Issue date: February 25, 2000
The Mountain View Fire Department is looking for recruits, men and women who can pass the strenuous physical and mental tests to qualify for duty in a top-rated department. Paramedic Jeff Cole, the designated medical expert on his engine, knows what it takes. He is nearly through his probationary period. For the story, see Page 5
Firefighters, paramedics apply here
Firefighters, paramedics apply here
(February 25, 2000)
MV Fire on a quest for the best
MV Fire on a quest for the best
(February 25, 2000) Need for paramedics spurs recruitment drive
by Karen Willemsen
Firefighter Jeff Cole has nearly made it through his probationary period as a paramedic/firefighter with the Mountain View Fire Department. If all goes well he may soon get to guide a new crop of potential firefighters through the training and the kinds of challenges he has faced this past year. The department is actively recruiting for both firefighter and firefighter/paramedic positions this spring. To have come this far Cole had to prove himself in a series of exams, interviews, and physical endurance tests. Now a rookie paramedic with the department he provides the medical expertise for a team of three firefighters in the field. With just moments to assess an emergency situation, he must be prepared to do whatever it takes to rescue and stabilize a person in trouble.
Cole studied paramedic medicine at a professional school and fire science at Mission College. In 1998 his name appeared on a roster of candidates who took the physical agility test and written exam conducted through Cooperative Personnel Services, a statewide organization.
Mountain View Fire Chief Hugh Holden uses that list to chose a combination of test scores that will represent Mountain View's requirements, which are considerably tougher to meet than those in some other departments. Each probationary hire, like Cole, will spend 18 months doing a practical apprenticeship in different areas of service, including firefighting, paramedic rescue, hazardous materials containment and fire prevention, conducted according to strict protocols set by the county.
"It's very hands on. You have to prove your manipulative ability, verbal communication skills, know every street in town. I used to ride my motorcycle around trying to find cues I could use to remember each street," Holden recalled.
At 30 Cole is already a veteran paramedic with experience gained from his previous work with a local ambulance service. With the fire department the stakes are even higher, because he and his team will usually be the first to arrive at a scene. In response, he is developing the ability to get closely but dispassionately involved with a victim. "It's different every time. Sometimes a person will look right at you. Sometimes they are so out of it they are just throwing up on you, or they've passed out from a concussion. You never know what you are going to get," Cole explained after a dinner at Fire Station Three on Rengstorff Avenue.
"This is the first dinner I've made for these guys," Cole admitted, presenting a platter of tortillas, rice, and roasted vegetables.
"Hey, that's ice cream!" said veteran firefighter John Owen, alluding to the tradition in the department that each "first" for a rookie must be celebrated with ice cream, purchased by the rookie himself.
"Jeff's been buying a lot of ice cream lately, because he's doing a lot of firsts -- first calls, first dinner, first save, first screw-ups -- they all just mean more ice cream for us," Owen teases.
Each team in the department has three members -- a captain, a fire engineer, and a firefighter/paramedic -- and can become very close. Developing a strong bond should be natural, Owen said.
Trammell noted that team members have to be able to get along well together. "You have to have flexibility in your approach to day-to-day situations," he said. "In the interviews we ask them about how they would interact with victims and witnesses when they go out on a call, but we also ask them about how they solve problems around the firehouse. As an example I asked one guy, 'What would you do if someone on your shift was just a slob? What if they left wet towels on the floor all the time?' What would you do? His response was something like, 'I would have a meeting to discuss having some station rules. Maybe for the whole department.' I mean, lighten up! You've got t be able to just get along with people We have rules and procedures for everything we do. We don't need them to tell people to pick up their towels."
Cole discovered his interest in emergency services while serving as an on-call firefighter in Morgan Hill, where he grew up. Unlike Trammell, whose father was a firefighter in Menlo Park and whose brother belongs to the San Mateo Fire Department, Cole is the first person in his family to feel the call of service. His dad was an electrician, and his mom, a homemaker.
"We've had architects, people with microbiology degrees applying to be here. It's so competitive, especially this year. I don't know what it is," Trammell remarked.
Certainly there is something about the life of a firefighter that has drawn an abundance of applicants from all walks of life to apply to the MVFD and to departments across the state this year. "I feel like it's a brotherhood here, especially in Mountain View, because the department is small enough that you can get to know everyone," Cole reflected. "I guess I should say it's like a family, or it will be, if we can get some women here."
By their absence, women are the talk of the department. Despite intensive recruitment efforts the MVFD has no women firefighters this year. One former firefighter became an inspector after an on-the-job injury. The tough physical agility testing seemed an insurmountable barrier for women, but recent changes to the state's tests helped to develop a small, but growing pool of potential female candidates. Another woman made it through all the steps of the process, passing her physical agility, oral interview, and written exams, only to take an offer from a city with higher salaries than those in Mountain View.
The lack of women in the MVFD is a major issue for Chief Hugh Holden and for Mayor Rosemary Stasek, who has made it known that she finds it remarkable, if not untenable, for a city-run department not to have an equitable number of female staffers.
"I continue to be disappointed that we haven't been successful in recruiting any women firefighters. I want us to remove any last barriers to establishing full equity in all city departments," the mayor stated during a taping of local television station "Before the Council" program.
"We understand the mayor's concern. And we recognize the need to have a force that reflects the diversity of the population they serve," Chief Holden told the Voice. "Before Proposition 209, (which disallowed affirmative action as a method of recruiting) we could do specific recruiting. We can't do that now."
Holden added that the department has seen positive change result from its efforts to create a more ethnically diverse department.
"We have firefighters who speak Eastern European languages, Asian languages, and Spanish, and they've added tremendously to the department's resources." said Holden.
"For example, a few years ago we got a call about a little boy who got his arm caught in a candy machine," Holden recalled. "I spoke some Spanish to him, but he was so young he didn't even know his address in Spanish, let alone English, and nobody seemed to know him. Once we got him out he took my hand and had to walk me to his house, so we could get him home. So having individuals in the department with different talents is valuable. Having people speak the language, having personnel the community can relate to is crucial.
The sense of trust and comfort among firefighters develops not just from living together during their 24-hour shifts but also from understanding the risks involved in the job. In a suburban community like Mountain View, where the majority of emergency calls involve medical emergencies, the possibility of risk is real and constant.
Trammell explains that he and Owen learned, as Cole will, that "you get full (from the emotional stress of the job), so you slough off the top. Sometimes you get a call and somebody dies. It's a tragedy to the victim, but it's just what we do."
"I can tell you war stories," Cole said. "I remember once, around 1 a.m., on Moffett Boulevard, there was this car just wrapped around tree, near 101. No one else was involved. 'How did he do that?' I thought. It was unbelievable. It took two engines and a rescue truck. We used the jaws of life to get this guy out. I thought he could have been drunk and he just spun out and lost control. But my job isn't to care about the 'whys' of what he did, as much as 'How am I going to help him?'
"Another time this motorcycle is playing Little Johnny Hero during rush hour on the freeway. He's riding in and out of the lanes. He gets into this accident with truck, and he gets dragged for 20 feet. He had a broken jaw and collarbone, a femur fracture. His left foot was amputated -- it was just mush, and he was a young guy. I started talking to him, but he was really out of it. I initiated the patient care, and I stayed with him all the way to the emergency room. But that was a unique situation."
Soon Cole will find out if he has a future with the department. Trammell and Owen may kid him about his probationary status, his cooking, the fact that he's single, but they seem to trust him like one of their own, when they go out on call.
Interested in a career with the MVFD?
Several area fire departments offer orientation days. You can visit the departments, learn about the physical agility testing, practice individual drills, and meet recruiters from several cities. For more information check www.cps.ca.gov, or call Cooperative Personnel Services automated information line at 916 263-3644.