These former Goodwill employees quietly keep things humming at O.C. Fire Authority

By Greg Hardesty

They know countless firefighters by name, and the firefighters know them: four employees of the Orange County Fire Authority who diligently go about their work behind the scenes, performing key tasks that keep the agency humming on all cylinders.

Tom Christian, Kenneth Eisenbise, Kevin Yunker and Tim Johnson are sitting in the break area in the cavernous Service Center at OCFA headquarters at 1 Fire Authority Road in Irvine, doing something they’re not accustomed to:

Enjoying a bit of the spotlight as they talk about their jobs.

“There’s nothing worse than going in the restroom and finding out it has no toilet paper or paper towels,” says Tim, whose duties include changing trash bags throughout OCFA headquarters and making sure the restrooms, break rooms, cafeterias and lobbies are clean and stocked with essentials.

Kenneth Eisenbise delivers the mail at OCFA headquarters in Irvine.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Every morning, Tom and Kevin make sure the OCFA service support vehicles — rigs that go out on fire calls with engines and trucks — are fully stocked with ice-cold water and Gatorade to keep parched firefighters hydrated.

Kenneth works the mailroom.

“These guys are rock stars,” says their boss, Service Center Supervisor Russ Snider.

“We love them. They’re part of the family.”

Tim, Tom, Kenneth and Kevin also are part of the family of Goodwill of Orange County, the Santa Ana-based nonprofit that helps people facing barriers to get and keep jobs and live as independently as possible.

Kenneth Eisenbise works in the mailroom at OCFA headquarters.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Goodwill of Orange County has had a 27-year partnership with the OCFA, training people with developmental and physical disabilities in work skills to land full-time jobs at the agency, which provides fire protection and emergency medical services for unincorporated areas of O.C. and 23 cities that contract for OCFA’s services.

Tom, 52, is going on 27 years at the OCFA.

And although in 2000, he and other Goodwill employees officially became employees of the OCFA, every day the four men work on site with a Goodwill employee, Luis Anguiano, who serves as their job coach, providing support and making sure they perform their duties safely.

“There’s always something going on hre,” says Anguiano, who is going on two years as the quartet’s job coach. “It’s a very busy job. The days go by very quickly.”

Kevin Yunker packs supplies for Station 72.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Tom had just finished cleaning his and his three co-workers’ uniforms of olive-green pants and tan shirts — a task he does once a week, usually on Fridays.

But the four are off every other Friday, and a three-day weekend looms.

Kenneth, 40, heads out to Building A — which houses OCFA administrative offices —- to sort incoming and outgoing mail. He places mail in the proper boxes to make sure it gets to the right fire station (there are 72 OCFA stations).

Asked what he likes to do on the weekends, Kenneth — the only one of the four Goodwill-trained employees who drives himself to and from work —- thought for a second, and said: “You know, the typical stuff. Laundry, mowing the lawn. Basic maintenance.”

Kevin, 51, is working on supply orders. Station 72 in Santa Ana needs toilet paper. Kevin puts two jumbo rolls in a box, labels it and gets to the other orders for janitorial, cleaning and office supplies.

Kevin Yunker moves inventory at OCFA headquarters.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Kevin has worked in the OCFA Service Center for 25 years.

“I like my job coach and all the friends I have here,” says Kevin, who hasn’t called in sick in 17 years. He lives in Orange in his own apartment and uses public transport to get to and from work.

Tim, 34, an 11-year OCFA employee, heads over to Building A.

In an administration office, he slaps on blue latex gloves and tidies up a women’s restroom.

James Ruane, OCFA finance manager, emerges from an office.

“They all do a great job,” Ruane says of Tim and his three Goodwill-trained workers. “They’re loyal, reliable and always friendly. They are hard working and have a great, positive attitude.”

Tim Johnson of Orange County Fire Authority keeps the restrooms clean.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The four earn about $15 an hour, with benefits. They work full time 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Tom heads to Building A to pick up trash for recycling.

One of the things I like is having Russ (Snider) as a boss,” says Tom. “He’s very laid back and understanding.”

Tom unexpectedly lost his father early this year, and Snider was flexible in allowing him to take days off to go to the memorial service in San Diego. An OCFA employee also looked after Tom’s dog at his home in Old Town Orange when he was away.

“I know a lot of the firefighters here,” Tom says, “and I’ve bonded with some we’ve lost.”

Tom Christian of Orange County Fire Authority works the laundry room.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

He mentions Jim Owen, the 56-year-old veteran firefighter and paramedic who died of a heart attack in September 2010 after a routine search-and-rescue training exercise.

As he rolls a recycling bin down halls in Building A, several OCFA employees greet him.

“How long have we known each other, Tom?” asks Sean Colgan, fire training officer.

“Too long,” Tom says with a smile.

“Tom and all the guys are awesome,” Colgan says.

He adds:

“This guy has a memory that’s just incredible. Name any movie, and he’ll tell you what year it came out.”

A visitor can’t resist.

Tom Christian collects recycle items at OCFA headquarters.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

American Beauty?

“1999 with Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening,” Tom says.

The Wizard of Oz?

“1939.”

Pulp Fiction?

“1994, the one with John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

“The 1975 movie with Jack Nicholson.”

Amadeus?

“1984 with Tom Hulce.”

A movie buff, indeed.

And like his three co-workers from Goodwill, hard workers.

Says Snider: “A lot of the firefighters in the field don’t know that these four guys are here taking care of them every day.”

Editor’s note: Goodwill is a client of Cornerstone Communications, publisher of Behind the Badge OC.

Tim Johnson of Orange County Fire Authority talks about his job and the friends he has there.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC