Jose Villanueva will never forget his first fire.
“It was a working structure fire, flames and smoke in the house. You can smell the house burning, the wood, furniture, the plastics. I climbed a ladder and knocked a hole in the peak of the roof, stuck a hose in and doused the fire. It wasn’t a whole lot, but you never forget that,” says Villanueva, 47, a Novi resident and father of three.
Ten years and hundreds of emergency calls later, the desire to assist others continues to inspire Villanueva as a paid-on-call firefighter in Novi.
“I think the most rewarding part is being on the scene and helping,” he said. “Giving back is a very big part of it.”
Villanueva, a General Motors designer during the day, is one of 35 paid-on-call firefighters hired to support Novi’s 18 full-time fire protection officers. Paid-on-call firefighters, along with a staff of 27 auxiliary firefighters, devote weeknights and weekends to serving the community.
“It’s satisfying to give back and be able to help others in their time of need,” said William McGary, 59, a veteran paid-on-call firefighter who also works as a security staffer at the Fox Run senior living community. “It’s a way to work with others to achieve the goal of making your city a safer place to live.”
Eric Leung, 38, designs wire harnesses at General Motors by day and works a weekly 12-hour night shift at one of four Novi fire stations. “I enjoy having the knowledge to help people whether on duty or off,” said Leung, a Novi father of two boys. “It’s just a good feeling and I think it sets a good example for my kids. One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done is helping people in their time of need. I don’t think you get into a job like this without having that personality trait.”
The City of Novi continuously recruits for paid-on-call positions, provides all necessary instruction in firefighting and emergency medical response, and pays recruits as they train.
Paid-on-call candidates must be at least 18 years old, live within five miles of the city limits, have a high school diploma, and pass a physical ability test before they are hired and begin fire academy and emergency medical technician (EMT) classes.
Requirements for paid auxiliary and paid-on-call positions differ in terms of training and geography. Auxiliary job candidates may live more than five miles from the city and must be trained, certified firefighters before being hired.
Paid-on-call firefighters earn $9.65 per hour while taking their first level of training, and $12.43 per hour while finishing their courses. Wages for trained, certified paid-oncall firefighters are $21.11 per hour.
Matthew Osborne, 44, a Novi resident and father of three, views the training and wages as major benefits of the job.
“Some departments don’t send you for training,” he said. “They expect you to have the certification. I think it’s a big deal Novi pays you to go through the training. It’s a really big benefit when someone will pay you to get an education.”
Osborne owns The 5th of Novi bar and manages car rental locations in four states for Avis Budget Group, but still finds time to work at least two paid-on-call shifts per month.
Work shifts run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends. Two paid-on-call firefighters are assigned to each shift, although additional help can be paged if needed. Shifts are scheduled months in advance, enabling firefighters like Tabitha Tejero, 37, of Farmington Hills, to plan her day job, family life, and her firefighting duties in Novi.
Tejero, a medical account executive for VTC Insurance Group, is married to an automotive engineer who works as a paid-on-call firefighter for the City of Farmington Hills.
“Being a part of the Novi paid-on-call system for nearly 10 years, at home we jokingly say our life is a juggling act, but we love it,” she said. “This job has made us realize that family comes first. We don’t like to put our daughter with a sitter so monthly we go over our schedules.”
Firefighting is close to Tejero’s heart. Her two brothers are full-time firefighters, her father was in the fire service, and her husband encouraged her to become a paid-on-call firefighter. As the first female firefighter in the family, she hopes to make them proud.
Tejero regularly works two Sundays every month and “calls dibs” on driving the fire truck when she’s on duty. She enjoys training to keep her skills sharp and allows “motherly instincts” to guide her when comforting young patients.
For McGary, becoming a paid-on-call firefighter 14 years ago fulfilled a childhood dream.
“I always wanted to be a firefighter but didn’t think I could. I thought only full-time positions were available,” he said. “I had a chance to talk with a firefighter who was passing out fliers in the neighborhood, and she said you could become a part-time firefighter. I was all in.”
Novi’s combination staffing model provides 24-hour coverage at its four stations, with full-time fire protection officers covering weekdays, and paid-on-call and auxiliary staffers working nights and weekends.
Fire Chief Jeffrey Johnson has seen “a significant reduction” in response times since 2017, when 24-hour coverage was extended to all four stations. Fire station #4, located at 10 Mile and Wixom Road, previously was staffed during daytime only, and had an average eight-minute response time to emergency calls. Since 2017, it has shaved response time by approximately 2 ½ minutes.
The Novi Fire Department embraced the combination staffing model 20 years ago, according to David Molloy, Director of Public Safety/Chief of Police.
“Novi started out with a volunteer fire department. We have evolved over the years as the community has grown,” Molloy said. “We have a lot of older adult housing and medical care facilities that necessitated an increase in our EMS service.”
Rescue and emergency medical service incidents account for the majority of Novi Fire Department runs. In 2019, firefighters responded to 4,564 medical and rescue calls from Jan. 1 through Dec. 27, compared to 79 fires during that same period. A variety of other incidents, including hazardous conditions, false alarms, and weather-related events, made up the rest of the 8,143 runs last year.
“It evolved from a volunteer department to what I would consider one of the most professional combination departments that you are going to find,” Molloy said. “We’re constantly recruiting to bring people who are able to perform the training into the organization. We help pay for that training. We pay you along the way. It’s our way of not only investing in the individual but we’re looking for that individual to invest in us as well.”
In addition to attending local fire academy and EMT courses, new hires also spend time with a mentor, learning about apparatus, fire trucks, procedures and policies that are aimed to provide the best possible service to Novi.
Many paid-on-call firefighters possess college degrees, certification in other fields, and have experience in professional careers.
“There is a great deal to be said for having that educational background,” Molloy noted. “People with a formalized education are good communicators and they understand how to treat people. I believe there is a ton of value having individuals come to work understanding that this is what they are doing in addition to their day job. That speaks volumes to the level of professionalism they have in wanting to give back to their community on a part-time basis.”
Some firefighters say the skills they use in their day jobs can strengthen their work as emergency responders.
Villanueva, for example, brings an “engineering mind” and a hands-on understanding of how tools work to paid-on-call firefighting.
“I worked as an automotive repair technician for a good portion of my career, so I’ve been working with my hands and tools. Your fire engine, that’s just a rolling toolbox. It’s chockfull of tools,” he said. “Understanding tools and working with my hands certainly helps me as a firefighter.”
Leung’s experience in the auto industry gives him insight into vehicle construction and has helped him to understand “what to cut and what not to cut” when extricating an accident victim.
Both Osborne and McGary, a retired assistant regional manager for Michigan Secretary of State, understand the importance of delivering good customer service.
“On medical calls you have a customer and your job is to get them what they need and where they need to go,” Osborne explained. “A lot of the (paid-on-call) firefighters with full-time jobs have customer service experience. I think that makes it a better experience for the patient.”
On the flip side, Osborne said EMT training has enhanced his family life, making him better prepared to handle emergencies at home.
“Firefighting has made me more competent around my own kids,” he said.
Added Leung, “For me, when I’m at GM or out and about, if anything happens, I know I have the ability to help if anyone needs it.” Helping others, serving the community, learning new skills – why not become the next paid-on-call firefighter in Novi.
For more information about becoming a Full-time, Paid-on-Call or Auxiliary Firefighter in Novi, visit cityofnovi.org.