Bob Dunning

Bob Dunning: There has to be a better way

By From page A2 | December 11, 2013

Thanks to a concerned citizen named Erin who wondered “what in the world is going on?” I headed out to the Veterans’ Memorial Center about 8 p.m. on a frigid Monday evening.
It was there I encountered a long line of potential city of Davis firefighters, bundled up as best they could on one of the coldest nights of the year for the right to be one of the first 125 applicants for firefighter positions that are not yet open.
They told me they planned to be there all night to ensure a shot at one of the coveted firefighter jobs when the doors opened at 8:30 the next morning.
First-come, first-served, they said, no exceptions. Too bad for those potential firefighters who for a variety of reasons were unable to spend the night in line.
“This is a test of our dedication and our endurance,” one of them told me. “It you want this job badly enough, you’ll figure out a way to be here.”
While dedication and endurance are no doubt requirements of the position, it seems this first-come, first-served rule might be eliminating some otherwise promising candidates.
I mean, do we hire our city manager this way or our cops or our recreation leaders? Do we make them stand in line all night to prove their dedication and endurance? Is this really the best way to find the most qualified candidates?
First-come, first-served may work well for Baskin-Robbins and Lady Gaga concerts, but I can think of a dozen better ways to screen candidates for critical public safety jobs in town.
But, just as I was about to call Starbucks and order up 125 double lattes for my newfound frozen friends, I decided to contact officialdom to see if this was really the way we ought to be doing business in Davis.
I sent a quick email to Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk, knowing that a prompt reply was a virtual certainty. Dan forwarded my email to City Manager Steve Pinkerton, who responded quicker than you can say “frozen firefighters.”
“While there is no perfect way to administer the test,” Pinkerton wrote, “many agencies have found that this is the lesser of evils. We’ve been doing it this way since the mid-’90s.”
Obviously time to try something new.
Added Pinkerton: “The problem is that there are far too many qualified candidates. If we were to hold an open recruitment, we would likely end up accepting applications from several thousand applicants — of which about 85 percent would end up passing the exam. The testing process alone would cost the city over $30,000. We would likely need to spend double that in staff time to screen and interview all of the qualified applicants.”
Fair enough, but there’s a way to have your cake and eat it, too.
Just put the word out through your usual channels that all applications for the firefighter test are due by such and such date at 5 p.m.
Once the date passes and everyone has had an equal chance to apply, simply pull 125 names out of the hat and proceed to test those 125 fortunate souls. No standing in line, no first-come, first-served, no added expense, but the same result.
In the city’s defense, Pinkerton noted that “This is the first time we’ve had applicants show up the day before the test. We were expecting folks to line up well before 8:30 a.m., but this is a first.”
And, to his everlasting credit, upon hearing of the long line of potential firefighters camped out on the frozen tundra, Pinkerton immediately ordered the Vets’ Memorial to open up for the night so everyone could at least stretch out and stay warm.
There are a million reasons Pinkerton could have declined to open the building — security, staffing, lack of proper planning, liability — but he saw a clear and present need and responded accordingly.
It was still first-come, first-served, however, for those wishing to use the bathrooms.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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