Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo can breathe a little easier now that he has eight new full-time firefighters on the job. After having to release 12 firefighters when the two-year SAFER grant expired, the city approved the hiring of six permanent firefighters at a preliminary cost of $505,000, and Martin Del Campo sent out an internal memo announcing he was taking applications.
On Nov. 10, Martin Del Campo stood nearby inside Fire Station No. 1, as City Clerk, Tom Graves, swore in the newly-hired, full-time firefighters: Jimmy Holguin, Vincent Munoz, Cortney Young, Adolfo Aguilar, Nathan Castro, Stephen Hanson, E. Johnny Amescua, and Michael Dariano.
Twenty-one applications were received from 11 of the laid off firefighters—one accepted a job in Clovis—along with 10 people who had been reserves all along. None of the 21 were paid unless called back as needed. Since the announcement, all 21 have been going through the entire hiring process involving a written test and multiple interviews. Martin Del Campo had the final say who the eight new hires were.
“I have to do everything that the law requires me to do to hire six full-time employees for the city,” he said. “I announced the positions for a week. We’ve reviewed the applications. They took a written test on Nov. 1 at the Veterans' Building on firefighter skills. They all did very well because they all had a year of doing this stuff.”
Since the city could only hire from the reserves component, the 11 laid off firefighters first had to submit letters requesting to be reinstated to reserve firefighter status for the city. Once they were back on the roster as reserves, they were eligible to not only be called up, but to compete for new city positions.
On his whiteboard hanging from the wall in his office, Martin Del Campo pointed out the applicants in two rows, resembling chess pieces in yellow and black. The 11 yellow pieces had the names of the 12 firefighters funded by the FEMA SAFER grant. The 10 black pieces were reserves who normally represent a pool of potential hires. But these are not normal times and all are competing for those six jobs.
As in a game of chess, Martin Del Campo said he would have to consider the qualifications of every applicant, along with the current mix of full-time employees and stations they must cover, no matter the total. He demonstrated the complexity as he moved pieces on the whiteboard.
“I get to pick six firefighters, and then I still have the Panoche Valley Solar Farm I have to provide service to and have to hire another two, for a total of eight,” he said. “The two for Panoche Valley were already hired, but because they came off the same list I couldn’t say ‘you’re the two I want,’ because I’ve got to give them the same opportunity to test for full-time positions. The positions were funded, but there weren’t two people assigned to them.”
Chief Martin Del Campo confirmed what some in the community had heard rumors of: The eight would be put in the reserve program. He pointed out that the notice that was published announced firefighters were being hired for “internal recruitment of qualified city employees.”
“In order for us to hire from the internal, we have to pick them up from the reserves,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have had to open it up to the public-at-large and I would have received hundreds of applications.
Martin Del Campo said that while the new hires do not have to go through the two-year training program, they willl be hired on a probationary basis. He said the normal probation period is 18 months, but he will attempt to work with human resources to reduce it to six months or a year, if possible. He also said those hired had lost any seniority or vacation time, but their retirement benefits would continue once they are back on the job. These considerations would only apply to the reinstated (yellow pieces on the board). Those whose names were on the black pieces would have to go through the normal probationary period because they had never gone through it.
“A lot of these people not only did the job, but they went to schools,” he said. “A couple of them worked on degrees, so they’re making themselves very marketable.”
Even though all of the 11 firefighters are similarly experienced, in order to be fair, Martin Del Campo said he looked at their experience, certifications, what they brought to the department, and what they intend to bring. He said he wants to start a bilingual program and whoever takes part in it could have an advantage.
Martin Del Campo readily admitted that the 11 who were laid off do have an advantage over those who have been in the reserve program from the beginning. Even so, he said it could come down to who shows him the best “customer service.”
As an example of what he meant by customer service, he said, “As a firefighter, when they’re on their knees, in the rain treating a homeless person on the ground the same way they’d treat their relative, we see that. My guys are very strict with how you treat everybody equally. At other departments I’ve worked at, I saw that line of arrogance where those folks felt like they were more entitled and they didn’t treat the poor people who lived on the streets the same as they treated those people at the country clubs.”
He said after the firefighters were sworn in they were placed on the roster for the first pay period of November.
“I need the staffing now,” he said. “If this had been the case of someone being promoted, I could have put them right into the new position. But since it was from reserve, part-time positions to full-time career positions, I had to go through the entire hiring process for fair hiring practices. I’m fine with that because it gives me the opportunity to have to not abide by the list of the former chief, but to create my own list.”
One reason he was in a hurry to get the eight onboard was because many of the 11 had already submitted applications to other fire departments and some were already going through background checks.
“I’m hearing about Modesto, Reno, North Lake Tahoe, Salinas, San Jose hiring,” he said. “The thing is, these people know the job, they know the streets (of Hollister), and mainly they know SOPs (standard operating procedures),” he said. “If they go to another department, they’ve got to learn all that stuff all over again. Besides, this is home for most of them and it means a lot for me to keep them all. But it means even more to have the staffing and protect the community.”