Selecting Firefighter Candidates: Taking the Longer View

By Jeremy Mitchell

My fire department is hiring. In that sense, we're a little unusual these days. In the course of our hiring process, though, we've changed a few things which have caused some members of our organization to question what we do and how we do it. There is some worry that by changing our hiring standards we are losing our ability to bring aboard people who fit the traditional definition of "firefighter." It wouldn't be fair to say that we have some members who believe that all it should take to be hired is a strong back and a willingness to follow orders, but I think that across our industry, we're seeing mistrust and fear resulting from progressive administrators who see the need to adjust their employees to the true, modern nature of their work. When I say that we ought to take a longer view of how our fire rescue services select new employees, I am referring to this true, modern nature. Planning for emergency services and the firefighter training programs should inform the selection process, and a good selection process allows the local fire rescue service to best implement its service plan. These aspects of fire rescue administration and service delivery aren't often discussed in relation to each other, but we'll see how they are interdependent, and how excellence in each individual area builds to excellence in the others.

The First Step: Planning For Emergency Services

When I first began to discuss a more modern procedure for hiring new firefighters with a chief officer who's familiar with the process, he brought up the job description as a foundation for screening good candidates. I would agree...eventually. It helps me to conceive of the long view of hiring as a "backward chain." Yes, a candidate needs to be able to perform all of the duties contained in the job description. Part of that comes from knowledge and skill acquired prior to hiring, and part of it comes from a well-considered and implemented training program, which we'll discuss below. But the job description (i.e., what your firefighter does during the course of his work day) cannot exist without you knowing how exactly your organization is to function--what services you're going to offer. In writing about a progressive emergency services organization, I use a small fictional community called "Anytown" for my case studies to generalize and make things a bit clearer. When Anytown decided to reorganize Anytown Fire Rescue Service (AFRS), it first had to decide what it was going to do. It makes most sense for a fire rescue service to base its organization and operations on the service calls it receives most often. Look at it this way: the public you serve, including the local officeholders (who will ultimately decide on your organization's budget and composition), will likely base their opinions on your effectiveness based on the calls to which they see you responding most often (likely a medical call or some type of service call). Not the once-every-decade "Big One" fire that too many firefighters--and officers--think ought to determine how well a local fire rescue service provides service. This was the case in Anytown, and this was how their call volume was broken down:

 Selecting Firefighter Candidates: Taking the Longer View

As you can see, the majority of calls for service (65 percent) were emergency medical in nature. Next, but still substantially behind, were calls for rescue, typically vehicular rescue, which accounted for 15 percent of calls for AFRS. Bringing up the rear with 10 percent each were structure fires and "other" calls for service, including carbon monoxide alarms, sprinkler activations, and the like. Basing its organization and service plan on which emergencies happen most often, AFRS decided that it would focus on these areas, listed in their order of importance based on frequency:

AFRS drew up an organizational document and mission statement to this effect. Has your local fire rescue service undertaken such a study? Do you have organizational documents that accurately state what you're going to do, and how you're going to do it? If you don't, how do you expect to hire the "right" sort of person to put the vision into action?

The Second Step: The Job Description and Training

So the organization has decided what types of services to offer and the organizational composition best suited to its community and its risks. Would you best served by a career, a combination, or a volunteer service? One station or several? All these concerns should also be addressed in the master planning process. Now the organization is prepared to determine what type of individual is needed to carry out the missions that the organization has agreed to take on. The job description, in any type of fire rescue service, is the blueprint for how a firefighter carries out his duties. It can be difficult for veteran fire rescue personnel to create a comprehensive job description since there are parts of the firefighter's job we may take as given (e.g. we may not think to include cleaning the bathroom at the station because it's been part and parcel of the new firefighter's experience for more than 100 years). It can be particularly difficult for veterans to create or revise the job description to reflect a modern, progressive master plan. That is, they may find it hard to write a document which creates a very different work picture for the firefighter than when they themselves joined the service. I call this the "Back When I Joined...…" Syndrome. However, within the context of our Anytown case study, AFRS leadership was able to draft a job description which included the following:

  • Emergency medical care
  • Mastery of key rescue disciplines
  • Firefighting
  • Hazard prevention and life safety education
  • Ongoing training
  • Facility, vehicle, and equipment maintenance

To summarize up to this point: AFRS administrators determined community risks by type and frequency to determine the services they would need to offer. Next, they developed a job description which explained how their firefighters will go about providing those services. At this point I'd like to say a few words about training: although not directly related to hiring practices, the training program is only valid if it prepares personnel for the types of work that they will actually be performing, day in and day out. Frankly, training to meet an Insurance Services Office (ISO) standard is not a valid way to administer your training program if you've performed a community risk-analysis in which fires are a low frequency threat. Note that I do not say you should abandon fire-suppression training, which would be reckless and irresponsible. As with all aspects of our service delivery, we must strike a balance between training to provide quality service in our everyday, high-frequency environment versus the lower frequency, higher-risk purview of structural firefighting.

I hope that readers right now see the links in the chain. Firefighters cannot perform at their maximum level without a good job description--which is impossible to attain without comprehensive risk assessment and a master plan for mitigating those risks. There is another link needed if the goals of our first two steps are to be realized: the hiring of personnel best able to meet the job description and carry out the organization's objectives.

The Final Step: Selection of Quality Firefighter Candidates

This is potentially the hardest step in the personnel process, but it is the step which the fire rescue service MUST get right. Unfortunately, difficulty arises because, instead of seeing the personnel process as a "chain," it can also almost be viewed as a paradox; the progressive fire rescue service can't provide its full range of services without a knowledgeable, skilled workforce--but it can't attract those candidates without first developing the type of organizational plan that this new type of firefighter will work best in. They are dependent on each other, yet I also understand the point of view that one must be in place before the other can occur. Suffice it to say that the well-developed firefighter providing a typical range of services in the 21st century needs both to succeed. As I said in my introduction, the days when "strong backs and stout hearts" were your organization's only job requirements are over (or they ought to be). Think about how a firefighter was hired in the latter half of the 20th century and how that new firefighter was trained. Requirements were minimal; the applicant had to be 21 years old by date of hire, have a high school diploma and no criminal record, and pass some sort of physical ability test. With the advent of emergency medical service (EMS), some organizations began to require that applicants have some level of medical licensure, but otherwise the new firefighter's professional education was completely conducted after he or she was hired. The more I think on this particular point, the more incomprehensible it seems to me. Is there ANY other profession where an applicant with no applicable skill or education can be hired and subsequently trained? For instance, can someone apply to work as a doctor in a hospital, be hired, and then receive a medical education? Can someone who likes to draw hire on to an architectural firm, and only then learn the profession? Such is the case in the fire rescue service, and it leads me to the belief that across our industry there ought to be some sort of requirement for post-secondary education among firefighter candidates. Why? Let's take a look at what I would consider a basic professional education for a brand-spanking-new firefighter. This person needs to have:

In this very basic list, we have a body of professional knowledge that is approximately equivalent to 15 post-secondary credit hours. Depending on local need, the new firefighter may also have to be educated in advanced EMS, fire- and life-safety education, hazardous materials response, or any of the technical rescue fields, all of which also exist as college-level courses all across the country. In fact, paramedicine, fire protection engineering, emergency management, and fire service administration already exist as academic disciplines. This puts the new firefighter well on the way to at least an associate's degree level of education, and it's my contention that if a firefighter is expected to demonstrate knowledge, skill, and ability corresponding to what is acquired in a college education, then it is reasonable to expect that firefighter applicants have completed an associate's degree or a comparable number of credit hours (usually 60). Opponents of this perspective state that putting this condition on firefighter candidates excludes "working people" from consideration. That is not the intent, and my response would be that firefighting is not--and has not been for many years--a "workingman's" job. It is, as we've demonstrated by exploring the firefighter's job description and place in the master plan, a profession. It requires a professional outlook, professional conduct, and a professional education.

Next, if we accept that we have to change our requirements for candidates to reflect modern conditions in the fire rescue service, it follows that we would have to change how we evaluate those candidates. As it currently exists, the written test is an assessment of general mental ability. Regular components of these tests are reading and listening comprehension, mathematics, and mechanical aptitude. However, if we change our application requirements to include a higher education component, isn't it logical to assume a higher than normal level of reading, listening, and math skill already exists among the applicants? Why are we testing them in areas in which they've already demonstrated mastery? Although I'm convinced a change must come about in this area as well, no answer is forthcoming. How do we evaluate candidates if not using the old way? What is fair? What is objective? Leading back to our first two topics, we must find a solution in this area to maximize firefighter performance and carry out the organization's master plan. As with other aspects of our profession, change is slow in coming, and rarely follows a straight, easy path.

The Vision Thing

This has been a very brief introduction into the evolving nature of the fire rescue service and the consequential evolutions in firefighter selection and in the work expected of a firefighter. Fighting a fire is no longer an everyday reality; depending on your community, it may not even be a weekly or a monthly reality. Fire rescue administrators must clearly perceive the functions their organizations serve, and adjust their perceptions of what services the community needs and WHO exactly it wants to provide them. Master planning depends on having trained and qualified people to carry out the plan, but finding and training the modern firefighter depends on correct planning and follow-through in selection and training. So when you get down to it, what does all this mean? Keeping our links strong (planning-training-selecting) takes fire rescue leadership with vision, courage, and the strength to see the necessary changes through.

Vision, because it takes a unique person to turn his sight from traditional concepts of our profession and to see clearly what the local community expects his fire rescue service to do, and to make appropriate changes.

Courage, because to realize that vision the leader will have to overcome resistance from within the organization, which is harder to defeat than opposition that comes from without.

Strength, because the leader will have to show his officers the connections among master planning, training and qualifications, and selection. This cannot be accomplished in an e-mail or two-hour staff meeting. It may require further education of the organization's lower-level leadership--or new low-level leadership. In all but the largest fire departments hiring is not an ongoing function, therefore fully integrating the three into a modern emergency services organizational package will take years. Think about that for a moment. Is the leader capable of sustaining these changes over the long term, or will he be distracted by the crisis du jour? Is the leader willing to be a teacher and an ambassador for the new paradigm--to show the public, the town council, the labor union, how the organization must change to survive in the long term? I am convinced that such people exist in the fire rescue service today. I am also convinced that we do ourselves no good by clinging to outdated beliefs about who a firefighter is and what a firefighter does. The forward-thinkers have to become torchbearers; not in an adversarial way, not in a destructive way, and not in a condescending way--but to help to light the path that the fire rescue services have to take in the new century. As my department brings new members into our ranks, it is my sincere hope that we choose to look ahead instead of behind.

Jeremy Mitchell is a firefighter with the Champaign (IL) Fire Department. He has a MPA in public administration, 14 years of fire/rescue experience, including service as a company officer and chief officer. He is also course developer/instructor for the Open Public Safety Institute.

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