At 26, Alberto Olmos was working as a concrete mason and wondering about his future when a guidance counselor helped him change his calling.
"I knew I didn’t want to be in that job for the rest of my life," he recalls. Several years after graduating from San Jose State, "I went to see a counselor at Mission College about a pursuing my dream of becoming a firefighter."
The counselor was straightforward. "He sat me down and said there were no classes that would prepare me to be a firefighter," he remembers with clarity. "No one can give you any magic words. If you want it, you and only you, can make it happen. Never give up that dream."
That was years ago. Today, Olmos is a captain with the San Jose Fire Department.
He believes if he had listened to all the negative reasons why he could not follow his dream – too much competition, too much hard training – he never would have succeeded.
"I think initially it was my Little League coach, who was also a firefighter and a great man, who got me thinking about becoming a firefighter," he says. "As a younger kid, I loved seeing the big red fire engine rushing down the street. I still see the guy and thank him every time I see him for instilling that fire in me."
Qualifying Process Tests Firefighters
The road to becoming a firefighter can be a long one. First, you must be certified as an Emergency Medical Technician and then complete paramedic training.
"EMT training can be completed in one semester," according to Olmos. "Paramedic (and EMT) training is available at junior and community colleges at a more affordable rate than vocational schools. Fire departments do hire those with just EMT training, but that is rare."
After completing the initial training, Olmos advises candidates to call every city that might be hiring firefighters and go through each testing process. Once they meet the qualifications, applicants get a date to take the written test. After that, there are physical agility tests, personal interviews, background checks and psychological tests.
"If a candidate passes, he or she attends a firefighting academy (located throughout California) for 15 weeks and is on probation for one year," he explains.
"Screening is rigorous because we want to hire the best to serve the community and, most of all, we need to ensure that we have people we trust to go into your house and take care of you."
The San Jose Fire Department has ongoing hiring. Olmos advises those interested in becoming a firefighter to do their homework and make sure this is something they really want to do. Then, sign up for a ride-along with the fire department in your community. This allows individuals to talk to firefighters and get a sense of what the job and the people are really like.
"If I can give a child one thing in life, it would be confidence and the drive to follow their passion into any career they choose," he concludes.
Jobs Waiting for Paramedics
According to the US Department of Labor, employment as a paramedic is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations by 2010. To get the required training, you might check out Emergency Medical Sciences Institute in Stockton.
"Before a student can enroll in our paramedic program they have to be a certified EMT," explains spokesman David Patton. "We have such a program or they can go to a junior college for a semester. We also advise getting some work experience."
The paramedic program consists of 500 hours in the classroom, 160 hours in a hospital and a minimum 480 hours on an ambulance or fire engine. Paramedic salaries with an ambulance company begin around $50,000 a year, while firefighter paramedics start at about $80,000.
"Right now most ambulance companies do not have enough paramedics to fill their needs," Patton attests. "Every single student in the current class has a job waiting."
Wanted Poster for Police
By 2012 law enforcement agencies in California will need to hire 68,000 officers – half of them to replace retiring veterans, according to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
Oakland is hoping to hire 100 officers by January. "We are looking for officers who believe in the slogan, to protect and to serve," declares Oakland police officer Panya Sawan. "We want those who are not only mentally and physically fit, but those who want to work with the public."
Candidates must be at least 20 and a half, with a high school diploma or GED, no felony convictions, a valid California driver’s license and a good moral background. Applicants must be US citizens or have proof that they are applying for citizenship. If those requirements are satisfied, there is a written exam, oral interview, physical ability test, background check, medical exam and polygraph test – a process that takes four to six months. Successful candidates are hired as police trainees and then attend the department’s police academy in Oakland for 24 weeks. After graduating, they are paired with an officer for 15 weeks of field training.
"When we put up billboards along the freeway advertising for officers we got calls from people who were more interested in the $69,000 annual salary," Sawan notes. "I would tell them if the money is more important than the job, they would not be happy."
Sawan has been a career police officer for 11 years following a stint in the Army. He says he always liked to solve problems, so public safety was the natural progression. He possessed the needed discipline and discovered the financial rewards were very good, plus every day is different but very fulfilling.
"I get calls from people saying they watch a lot of cop shows on TV and think it would be a cool job," he chuckles. "I wish I could tell them that is the wrong approach. Helping people should be the key and after that everything will reward itself."
For more information on careers in public safety, visit these websites:
CSFA.net – Website of the California State Firefighters Association. While it provides interesting information about news that affects firefighters, it is not a job board.
American-Firefighter.com/jobs – Firefighter openings from throughout the US are listed by state.
CSAC.counties.org – California State Association of Counties. Click on California Counties/Websites. Most of the 58 counties have links to law-enforcement and firefighter openings.
Corr.ca.gov – California Dept of Corrections. Click on "Career Opportunites" for a list of current openings.
POST.ca.gov – Website of the Commission on Peace Officer Standards & Training provides job contacts and classes on law enforcement. (916) 227-3909.
PoliceEmployment.com – Job searches, links, career information and tips.