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In this file photo, the Kern County Fire Department responds to a house fire in Oildale.

Anticipating a surge in retirements in the near future, the Kern County Fire Department has begun the first of what it believes will be a multiyear hiring spree.

Already short by over 40 safety-section positions — or those who are employed within fire stations — the department hopes this new employment effort will bolster the ranks with new energy.

In a break from the past, however, the fire department will seek to hire from mostly within Kern County. By staying local, department officials believe the new hires will be less likely to transfer to other counties. Plus, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on employers across the country, county officials see the open positions as an enticing way to help the local population.

“I want the best available people, don’t get me wrong, but I know there’s some great people that we’re just not hitting within Kern County,” Fire Chief David Witt said in a phone interview. “I know, realistically, it’s not going to be 100 percent Kern County applicants, but it would be nice to get that number up to 75 percent to give the best possible product to our county.”

Over the last five years, Witt said, more and more firefighters have left the department, seeking higher pay elsewhere across the state. Since around 2015, Witt said the number of transfers out of the department has increased from around five a year to at least 20 this year. In addition, as the force ages, a greater proportion of firefighters will be eligible for retirement in a few years, leading department leaders to predict a series of retirements is coming.

The department already plans to hold an academy early next year for 20 open positions. After announcing the recruitment several weeks ago, the department received more than 200 applications from across the state.

Witt said that generally, about half of the applicants are from Kern. The exact breakdown of firefighters from outside the area is now known.

Over the next few years, the department sees a need to hold at least one academy to bring on more people, perhaps eventually two. The difference will be that future academies will have the benefit of building on the foundation of a fire department recruiting effort. Focusing on colleges and high schools, department officials hope to plant the seed of employment within the fire department in Kern County’s youth.

“These jobs are highly sought after, well paid and with excellent health care and retirement benefits,” Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop wrote in an email. “I think any effort by our fire chief to provide greater opportunity for our residents, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, coming out of our local high schools or who may be enrolled in a local college and contemplating a career, would be value added.”

Whether the youth of Kern County take the bait remains to be seen. The fire department is in the midst of addressing a multimillion dollar structural deficit that will require serious adjustments to how it does business. Still, Chief Witt has hope the strategy will work.

“We’re going to hit it hard over these next couple years to attract more and more of the right type of people from Kern County,” he said. “Really, it’s just helping people be successful in knowing what to do and how to do it.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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