By Rebecca Rose
Harker Heights Herald
On the heels of a recent City Council measure to approve upgrades to the Harker Heights Fire Department's Central Station, including a new generator and improvements to the wiring, the department will add one more firefighter this year.
Three new firefighters have been added to the roster since January, following four years of what Deputy Chief Glenn Gallenstein termed a "substantial increase."
"We've seen major growth in the past three to four years. We've hired 11 people in four years," said Gallenstein, a 19-year veteran of the department.
That number represents new positions specifically created to meet demands for service as Harker Heights continues to grow, Gallenstein said.
But even with increased demands, the department isn't relaxing the notoriously stringent requirements associated with becoming a firefighter. From physical to mental testing, the firefighters must meet high standards to wear the Harker Heights uniform.
Two months ago, the department posted a job for one opening. Ten applicants applied, a sharp contrast to the numbers that applied at another city agency across the street.
While hundreds applied for three police officer openings at the Harker Heights Police Department, only a handful of applicants applied to become firefighters.
Gallenstein explained that the applicant pool is smaller because the department requires their firefighters to have paramedic and firefighter certification, a process that can take more than a year to complete.
Unlike the police department, HHFD does not hire applicants who haven't already been through all required training. All applicants must complete certification and training courses to be considered.
Offered by different agencies and schools throughout the area, the class prepares applicants for the intensive state exam, compiled by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection.
The written exam is accompanied by a grueling skills exam, which tests the firefighters' endurance and abilities under stress. Candidates must put on gear, raise ladders, roll hoses, climb stairs and more.
"It's extremely physically demanding," Gallenstein said. "It tests all the different things you would do on fire call. You're put in very stressful situations."
Applicants selected from those applying at HHFD are screened, completing drug testing and an extensive background check.
"We make sure they meet all requirements," Gallenstein said. "Then we test them."
Potential recruits are put through a central functions test, examining how they perform in multiple aspects of the job. They are scrutinized for how well they are able to follow standard procedures for every task, from climbing ladders to carrying victims.
"It tests the essential things we do on the fire scene or during our normal daily operations," Gallenstein said.
The test is pass or fail only.
"If they pass that, then they go to the written test, which tests general knowledge on fire and routine medicine. Once they finish that, then we do skills testing," Gallenstein said.
The testing measures the applicants' abilities to intubate, their knowledge of medical codes and other essential firefighting skills, evaluated according to state requirements.
"We rank them in order of score, and then they go through the interview process," he said.
New hires are then put through a field-training process for six months, and shadowed by a senior firefighter who ensures their performance is up to the department's standard.
Ready to serve
Ray Gandara, 28, is one of the firefighters who made it through the entire process. On July 22, he will officially celebrate one year with the department. Gandara did his training in Crowley.
"I think the most challenging part was the physical labor you have to put into it," he said. "It's a lot more than people think."
A traditional fire academy can run from three to six months, depending on the agency offering the training. Gandara completed four months of online book work as part of his certification course. An intensive boot camp followed.
"You stay there for two weeks. It's like you live in a firehouse. It simulates real-life scenarios. We went into a burning building, and did search and rescue," Gandara said.
Gandara said his experience in Harker Heights, which has included six structural fires and three grass fires, has been "widespread."
"In the morning you'll go on a med call. Maybe in the afternoon, it's a water leak," he said. "It's always different."
Gallenstein said another part of their screening process involves ensuring the applicant is a good fit, especially for a smaller department like Harker Heights.
"We will never be a Houston or a Dallas. Our city size will be maxed out at 40,000," he said. "They have to want to be part of that."
"We want a good employee that feels good about our department, and we want to feel good about them."
Contact Rebecca Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7548.