Oakland Fire Reopens Application Process


 
 

Harry HarrisKristin Bender | | Wednesday, December 5, 2007


OAKLAND, Calif. -- City officials announced Monday they will now accept applications from as many as 2,000 fire department hopefuls who were turned away Saturday in a hiring process dogged by complaints of unfairness and massive disorganization.

Thousands of men and women showed up at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to apply for two dozen coveted Oakland Fire Department jobs. Earlier in the week, the city handed out about 7,600 applications for the positions, but said only the first 1,000 applicants would be accepted.

Many applicants lined up overnight to be first in line Saturday, but because of the way the applicants were randomly selected to submit paperwork, the city, for a first time in recent memory, will allow those turned away to reapply. Fire Chief Daniel Farrell said Monday that no one in the city is happy with how the chaotic hiring process unfolded.

We were attempting to react to a crowd and the situation just deteriorated, Farrell said. We made some major missteps and now we are looking back to see how we can correct some of those things.

Job applicants who were turned away can submit their applications from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Oakland Fire Department Training Center, 250 Victory Court in Oakland. This is the only day applications will be accepted.

Applicants must bring a signed application and a Department of Motor Vehicles print-out of their driving record dated between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. Only those meeting those guidelines will be allowed to apply; no new applications will be handed out, Farrell said.

The chaos began Thursday, when applicants began lining up and camping out in downtown Oakland -- a full two days before applications for 24 positions were set to be accepted. The city had tried to keep the entrance point for application submission quiet, but when it was leaked, the lines began forming.

To keep the process fair, city officials told those in line Friday to leave. They made announcements, handed out fliers and posted signs, but few budged.

The fliers said there was no official line, but rather multiple entry points and that official lines would not be established until 5 a.m. Saturday. So, applicants gathered at the five entry points to Frank Ogawa Plaza. That s when the disorganization started building.

Many applicants arrived late, disregarding the informal lines that had formed, and moving themselves to the front of the crowd, pushing those that had waited -- for hours, even days -- to the back of the crowd, city officials said.

There was yelling and shoving during what some called a one-ring circus.

Trying to control the mayhem, city officials began picking people from different parts of the lines to submit their applications.

Applicants claimed that some minority applicants, specifically African-American and women, were hand picked over others. Witnesses said people wearing uniforms or T-shirts from other fire departments were passed over. There also have been grumblings that relatives of high-ranking City Hall officials or people with connections to the fire department were singled out to submit applications.

That s not true, said Farrell, adding that people who were chosen were in the right place at the right time.

With the crowd pushing forward, we tried to get some people from the right side of the crowd, some from the left side of the crowd and some from the middle of the crowd. There were no defined lines, he said.

Farrell admitted that one of his two sons in the lines was picked, while the other was not.

I didn t personally pick him. He was picked by someone else, he said.

Chuck Garcia, a fire department lieutenant and president of the firefighters union, said Monday he was happy to hear the city did the right thing by reopening the process for those turned away.

He credited city officials, particularly Mayor Ron Dellums Chief of Staff David Chai, with acting quickly and fairly to rectify the problem.

Earlier Monday, though, Garcia, who was not present Saturday but received reports from union board members, said the process was a slap in the face for the city. Personnel officials should have known better, he said, and underestimated the number of applicants.

Jobs with the Oakland Fire Department are in high demand, and limiting the number of applicants to the first 1,000 people in line is a joke, he added.

Unfortunately, he said, the union does not have a say in the city s hiring policies and the fire department does not have its own recruiters.

If they allowed the union to be part of the recruiting process it would be better, Garcia said.

There was already widespread concern that there would be droves of applicants because the city is no longer requiring an emergency medical technician certificate to apply -- a move some thought might be preferential treatment.

I just don t understand why they opened it up to every Tom, Dick and Harry, said Nahm, 43, of Brentwood. There were guys showing up who are 50 years old without any experience and then there were guys that looked like they just got off the party bus.

Many people who called or e-mailed the Oakland Tribune Monday were reluctant to give their names because of fears they will be automatically blacklisted from the hiring process in the future.

One of those people was a 26-year-old firefighter who said he drove eight hours from his home and waited in line from 4 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday with no luck.

I was aiming to get into the department for a very long time, he said. I like the community, I like the city and it s a department I wanted to work for that department for a very long time, said the man, who works as a firefighter in another city.

He said he believes the department purposefully misled people to show the giant, eager crowd of people who want to join the Oakland force. The large crowd of applicants was featured on many Bay Area television stations and in newspapers.

I think they were fully aware of what was going to happen, the man said. They usually test every two years. How could they not know that was going to happen?

Garcia wondered if the situation Saturday will shrink the applicant pool.

We have to ask the question, he said, will they come back?

Staff writer Kamika Dunlap contributed to this report.


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