Three qualities that can help you in your career as a firefighter
There are many reasons people apply to fire departments. It is a lifelong goal for some, a chance for a “steady job with benefits” for others, and some see it as a way to make a difference in the world—even if they are not quite sure what a firefighter does. All agree that they have seen TV shows and news clips of firefighters and EMTs saving lives, putting out fires, and driving the huge shiny trucks that get a lot of attention. They may have also had interactions with these public servants in their own communities and experienced high levels of customer service and the true spirit of self-sacrifice that is present in the first responder community. If none of these applicants have any prior experience or any of the certifications we discussed the previous article, how can they break into the fire service career field? What can they use from their past experiences to make them stand out in their applications and interviews?
While the fire service is heavy on official certifications, these are not what will ultimately make you successful in this career field. It is the skills of perseverance, empathy, and honesty that will make you stand out in an interview and help you succeed in the field. Many jobs and life experiences can be used to show how you have excelled in these areas in the past and will continue to do so if offered a job in the fire service.
The fire service is a career that has many “make it or break it” moments. This means that if you are presented with a problem, a physical challenge, or an emotionally charged situation and you have a habit of checking out or giving up, this job might not be for you. For example, in the fire academy, which is a firefighter training environment, your instructors will push you physically and mentally to see if you are able to persevere and make good decisions when under stress. This is done to prepare you for the work you will do after graduation from the academy. Physically and mentally demanding work may not happen every day, but there are incidents where you will be putting your life on the line to safe the life of another. You will also make decisions in Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) environments to save the property of others. Firefighters should be able to solve problems and stay levelheaded and even-tempered while they work through these situations.
When you are putting in your application or sitting for the interview, show examples of how you have persevered in previous jobs or life experiences. For example, if you have military experience, an example of a situation where you showed remarkable perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds would be helpful. We are not suggesting you compromise any classified information to do so. Pick something acceptable to share. If you do not have prior military experience, active participation in sports teams in high-stakes academic situations or other job fields can yield similarly powerful examples. Bottom line: share about those times when you felt like giving up with every ounce of your being—but you didn’t. Instead you stuck with it, handled it well, and were successful. Those are the types of situations we are faced with in the fire service. The fire service needs people who can persevere.
We see people on what is often the worst day of their lives when we work in the fire service. Sometimes a big problem to them may not seem like a big problem to you. This is where the quality of empathy is necessary. Empathy is often misunderstood. It is not feeling sorry for others. It is being willing to understand someone else’s point of view. In combination with the quality of humility, having confidence in what you know but knowing you don’t know everything, a firefighter is able to address the needs of customers with respect and dignity. For example, as a firefighter you respond to a scene of an apartment fire. The fire wasn’t big, and it is already out, but it caused the whole building to be evacuated. One of the citizens from an unaffected apartment didn’t grab his car keys on the way out. He is very upset and is telling you he needs to get his keys because if he is late for work he will lose his job. Empathy is taking the time to ask which apartment is his and either going to your officer to relay his concerns or to an appropriate supervisor who is able to assist him. It is empathetic to believe him when he says he will lose his job even if you have never had a boss who would behave the same way if you were in a similar situation. It is good customer service to assist this citizen if possible.
What are some instances in your life or past careers where you have had to show empathy? Perhaps you worked in a customer call center and were responsible for listening to complaints about products or services. It would be necessary to have some empathy and an ability to comprehend their point of view to be able to solve their problems most effectively. Did you work in retail or as a server and had a change in your perspective on an issue like tipping, management, or working with the public due to your experience? How did these experiences help you appreciate the need for excellent customer service? These are the types of examples you can use on your application and in your interview to specifically show your quality of empathy. The examples may not seem fire service related; however, the fire service is made up of customers. There are external customers—the ones you will meet on calls, and internal customers—the ones you will work with in the stations. The fire service needs people with empathy and good customer service skills.
Everyone knows “honesty is the best policy,” right? This is true in all career fields. However, firefighters hold a level of trust not experienced in any other profession. We are invited into people’s homes without question to solve whatever problem they are having: fire, medical, plumbing, electrical, unknown. Parents run out of their homes with their children in their arms and hand them over to us because they need help, and the parents know we will do all we can to save them. The application process for the fire department is difficult seeing as the public’s trust in us is so high.
It is necessary to show your credibility and honesty in your application and interview. You can do this by giving specific examples of times you had the opportunity to do the wrong thing but did the right thing instead. You can also do this by giving an example of when you may have made a mistake, but did what you needed to do to make it right. We in the fire service understand that humans have flaws and do not expect perfection. We have a responsibility to the public we serve to choose honest firefighters for the job.
The fire service values firefighters who have perseverance, empathy, and honesty because these qualities can create excellent customer service—both external and internal. They are also foundational to teamwork. In our next article, we will take a look at the birthplace of teamwork for many firefighters: the fire academy!
Mandy George is a lieutenant in the Chesapeake (VA) Fire Department. She is a training officer who works with a strong team to facilitate the training needs of a 500-member department of sworn and civilian personnel. She has a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management, a master’s degree in professional writing, and an associate’s degree in emergency medical services. She is also a Nationally Registered Paramedic (NRP).
FIRE SERVICE 101