BY RICHARD MARINUCCI
Sometimes chiefs and chief officers joke that many of their personnel problems are the result of hiring mistakes. This is not a joke. Too often problems are created by people who made it through the hiring process in spite of some flaws in their character, talent, or interpersonal skills. Evaluating talent is not only important for sports teams, but it is also essential when pursuing the right people for the critical job of firefighting. Organizations must invest in their hiring process not only to get the candidates with the most ability but also to “weed out” potential problems.
Doing the research necessary to develop a fair hiring process that produces the desired candidates is time consuming. Once the process is established, that, too, can take time to complete. Sometimes administrators and managers are tempted to speed up the process, as they get impatient when trying to fill vacancies. This is not a good idea; shortcuts either in establishing the process or completing it can, and most likely will, cause future problems.
Any hiring process used must be fair, must be unbiased, and must not create an adverse impact. If you are unsure of what this means, you need to contact an attorney or a competent human resources professional. Regardless of your personal beliefs and views regarding hiring, you must follow established laws and rules. Failure to do so could place you in a very difficult position. Do your research and learn what laws, rules, and local ordinances are applicable to your circumstances.
Once you know the rules you must play by, determine the qualities that you desire in your candidates. This should be determined through the development and use of an appropriate job description. If you have what you believe to be an appropriate job description, then you can develop a process that will yield people who are most likely to successfully meet the criteria established in the job description. If you do not have a written job description for the positions in your organization, then you need to create them. Seek help from competent professionals with human resources backgrounds. Don’t just rely on the old standby of “cut and paste” from other organizations. Although there are many good examples to copy, don’t do it haphazardly. Make sure you use due diligence.
Regardless of the content of your job description, there are some core skills that will be required by everyone. There will need to be basic intelligence requirements and physical capabilities. In addition, there are some “softer” skills that you may consider desirable. They would include some general things such as character, teamwork, leadership potential, and interpersonal skills. Uncovering these characteristics in candidates takes more effort, but their importance should not be minimized.
In most fire service organizations, the expectations of employers have grown. In addition to performing basic firefighting skills, there is more emphasis on the ability of employees to communicate effectively verbally and in writing. Organizations providing advanced life support and specialty services such as hazardous materials responses will require personnel with corresponding aptitudes. Candidates who have not done well in some school subjects may not have the background necessary for today’s fire service.
Many departments include a written exam as part of the hiring process. This test must be job related and must measure the basic skills, knowledge, and ability the job requires. There are standardized tests that are used throughout the country. Some larger organizations have developed their own tests. Organizations must know the implications of using standardized or their own tests relative to validity. If you are unaware of the need for valid, job-related tests and issues such as adverse impact, you need to find competent assistance as you select your testing vehicle. One thing to consider with a written test is to evaluate writing skills. Today’s fire service requires more written reports, and candidates who lack adequate writing skills may never be capable of meeting your standards and requirements.
Regardless of your department’s run volume, it is reasonable to expect firefighters to be capable of physically performing the essential functions of the job. Firefighters will be asked to move hose (charged and uncharged), carry people and equipment, and use ladders, among other tasks. Candidates would be hard pressed to perform these tasks if they did not have adequate strength. Departments need a test to measure the ability of candidates to perform the essential job functions. There are recognized tests such as the Candidate Physical Abilities Test, along with others, that have been used. Make sure the test is related to the essential job functions. Remember, few people improve their basic physical capabilities after they get a job. If they struggle from the get-go, you could be faced with a challenge for a long time. One way to minimize the risk that candidates will become a firefighter struggling to perform some of the basic functions is to make sure they start out with a good foundation of strength and fitness.
Oral interviews are a standard practice in hiring processes in virtually all industries. They are a great way to gain information directly from the candidate. They can provide insight into the “softer” skills that you are seeking. Of course, for this to be successful, you must be trained in interviewing techniques. Often, people think they are capable in this area because it is “just talking to someone.” It should be much more. The people doing the interviewing must be prepared. I have been on many interviews where the interviewers have done a poor job and allowed a marginal, or worse, candidate to progress further into the system. Interviews must be scored in a manner that does not pass candidates you think are not capable or are likely to be average or mediocre. You need to assess attitude, character, passion for the job, and personal impression, to name a few aspects. In all of these areas, candidates don’t improve once they get hired. If they are not what you want, fail them.
One element of the selection process many departments often overlook is a psychological evaluation. Properly trained and educated psychologists have the ability to evaluate candidates and make a recommendation regarding their mental and emotional makeup regarding the position of firefighter. Again, this is something that you would want to know before you hire. A failure to identify characteristics that may not be conducive to the position of firefighter will lead to problems with which you will have to deal in the future. The time and expense are justified.
One thing to remember-since this is a medical evaluation-is that the psychological evaluation cannot be given until a conditional offer of employment is made. This is similar to a physical examination, which also must be given before hire but after a conditional job offer has been made.
A thorough background check must be completed before hiring a firefighter. Even if you have a solid selection process, some things may not be revealed. Occasionally, fire departments will get feedback on a firefighter after the hiring, and it is too late to change anything. You don’t want to hear this: “You should have called me about your latest hire. You may not have made that choice.” Of course, getting the right information is important. You should use a trained investigator to do background checks. You have the choice of asking your police department, hiring a company specializing in this, or training your own personnel. Regardless, this is an extremely important part of the process. I have seen numerous instances when a red flag appeared and kept us from hiring a potential problem employee.
A part of the selection process must include a probationary period. During that time, the candidates must be evaluated with an appropriate system based on the standards of performance your department has adopted. Personnel expected to evaluate probationary personnel must be trained. These people must also be of strong character and willing to make tough choices when candidates demonstrate that they are not meeting expectations. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that a problem employee was identified during probation but no one was willing to issue a failing evaluation. When that happens, you will be stuck with a problem employee for years. Take the probationary period seriously; consider it the final step in a comprehensive selection process.
Over the years, I have had many opportunities to hire people. I have also seen many other departments go through a process. I can tell you that good hiring practices lead to good hires and reduce the risk of future problems. I can also tell you that many “problem employees” didn’t do well in the hiring process but were allowed to progress through the system even though they were marginal at best.
The hiring process should be narrowing the candidate pool to the point that you are hiring the best. If your organization desires to provide outstanding service, you must start with the talent capable of being developed to do so.
● RICHARD MARINUCCI has been a chief for more than 27 years and has been chief in Northville Township, Michigan, since January 2009. Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills (1984–2008), president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He is a speaker at FDIC, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, and editor of the seventh edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.
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