Fire Service Assessment Centers: Beyond the Books

BY ANTHONY (ANDONI) KASTROS

More and more fire departments are using assessment centers for promotion. Candidates for lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, and higher ranks are likely to face this type of test. Some fire departments are using a “modified” assessment center for entry-level testing. Some agencies even use assessment centers for fire marshal and fire chief promotional processes. Why? Candidates cannot hide deficiencies in assessment centers as they can in interviews. It is easy to say you have people skills and can perform under pressure. Assessment centers make you prove it. You must actually showcase your skills and preparation (or lack thereof).

Fire departments are also facing many new challenges today, necessitating a more in-depth process for supervisors. Although no testing process for a job as complex as a fire officer is perfect, assessment centers offer a much greater opportunity to see the candidate in simulated “day in the life” scenarios.

Many factors continue to place pressure on the modern fire service officer, including expanded diversity of mission and workforce and an increase in litigation, to name a few.

Recognizing these factors, the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department conducted its first assessment center promotional process for Captain I in 2007. Until then, the process was limited to a written test and a civil service interview. City management realized that the new personnel challenges alone warranted a more modern and thorough process to protect the city’s liability interests. Enter the assessment center. Now, candidates could be placed in role plays and simulations, mimicking the issues that modern LA City captains face.

Many articles have been written about assessment centers. All have something to offer; read every one you can find. This article focuses on the first two steps in preparing for a successful assessment center experience. They are mental preparation and planning. If you do not address these two critical components up front, you may not reach your potential and may be setting yourself up for disappointment even before you ever crack a book or practice a simulation.

 

MENTAL PREPARATION

 

Mental preparation involves eliminating baggage and becoming position-focused. You must first eliminate any mental baggage and then establish the mindset of the position for which you are aspiring.

 

Mental Baggage: Some Manifestations

 

Many firefighters would make good officers, but they get too nervous at test time. Their nerves prevent them from being themselves and from confidently approaching the assessment center exercises as they would on the job. These firefighters can confidently lead troops into battle on the fireground, but they fold when facing an assessment panel during a simulation.

Baggage—the combination of failures, negative experiences, doubts, insecurities, nerves, and other issues of life that weigh us down and hinder our performance—holds them back. If you do not acknowledge and deal with this baggage, it will come back and interfere with your performance again and again.

Baggage can come from countless sources: failing past assessment centers and fearing a repeat of that performance; anger at the department over contract negotiations, leadership (or lack thereof), or favoritism; antagonism toward the fire chief over a personal issue; and personal issues. All of these things can create a host of emotions—from fear to anger to doubt to finally giving up. You must acknowledge this baggage and check it at the door before stepping into the assessment center.

Following are some examples of how unchecked baggage can manifest itself in very negative and destructive ways:

• A captain candidate who had issues with the fire chief told the assessment panel during his test that the fire chief was a liar. He dropped his baggage on the table for the assessors to see. Needless to say, he failed the process.

• An experienced and respected engineer refused to take the upcoming captain test because he had failed the previous one. He told me, “I’m not taking the test because I like being an engineer. I have a lot of seniority, and I like my crew. If I get promoted, who knows where they will put me?”

I asked him one question: “Are you telling me that if they said they messed up the scores on the last test and they had a captain’s badge for you right now you wouldn’t take it?”

He replied, “OK, I’ll take the test.” I simply called him on his baggage. He made up excuses to hide the fear of repeating the experience of his previous failure. He scored number two out of 90 candidates on the next test and has been a captain for three months now. He is doing a great job.

• A highly respected truck firefighter recently turned down an opportunity for assignment to our Command Training Center station. He would have access to all types of state-of-the-art training, good mentors, and a crew that would support his efforts. I asked him why he didn’t bid the station. He said, “After failing numerous times, how would it look if I failed again after working there?” He had already made up his mind that he wouldn’t even try. Unfortunately, that is the only true failure—failing to try.

• I worked with an old salty firefighter who had been my drill instructor in the fire academy. Some 15 years later, I was now a captain and found myself working with him as the firefighter on our engine. I was thrilled to be with this old crusty critter again. He had taught me so much over the years.

During our first cup of coffee together at the station, I told him that he should have been a captain 15 years ago, and I wanted to help him promote, to get through the test. I didn’t even get my thoughts out when a tear silently fell from his eye. He just needed someone to believe in him again. He had been through several divorces over the course of his career. His baggage was from his personal life. Needless to say, the thought of an assessment center and potential failure was not appealing to him. After some discussion, he got up the nerve to saddle the horse and took all 10 of the required classes to qualify for the test, formed a study group, sat in the hot seat, studied feverishly, and didn’t make the list.

He was devastated. The big payoff didn’t happen. His worst fears came true. The personal struggles he faced now crept into his professional fire life—a sacred place of refuge. It took a real team effort from the engine and truck crews and the other department members who believed in him to talk him back onto the horse. If the first attempt was tough, the second seemed impossible. After a few months of coping with the test results, he decided to give it another try. He told me, “I will make you proud this time.” I told him that he made me proud last time just for showing up.

The second time, he finished ninth out of 90 candidates. He was quickly promoted and is now the excellent captain we all knew he would be. He identified his baggage, dealt with it, and refused to give up. Fortunately, most firefighters are pretty stubborn, so that comes in handy sometimes. Don’t give up, and remember: The only true failure is in not showing up.

What baggage do you carry? Is it perhaps fear of looking foolish, tarnishing your reputation as a good firefighter, doing worse than someone younger or someone older, repeating a bad experience, seeing a particular assessor, or not wanting to jump in because it has been 10 years since you took a class? The key is to find the root issue and clean it up. Check your bags at the door before you enter the assessment center.

 

Pillow Tossing

 

A derivative of baggage is pillow tossing. You may find yourself saying, “I’m just taking it to see what’s on the test. I like being an engineer. I’ve got a lot of seniority in this position. I’m not really going to study that hard. I already have a great job.”

Making comments like these set you up for failure. It’s much easier to fail if you have preloaded all the excuses. Like tossing pillows on the ground, it softens the fall. If you tell everyone (including yourself) that you don’t really want the job anyway, then not making the list is no big deal because, hey, you didn’t really want it. Have the guts to climb the ladder without the pillows and walk the tightrope without a net. It’s okay not to make the list. Sometimes, that yields the best life lessons. You can learn humility, earn respect, and develop the kind of character that comes only after disappointment.

 

DEVELOP A JOB-ORIENTED MINDSET

 

After you get rid of the baggage, get ready for the job. Think as if you were in the position to which you are aspiring. So many candidates obsess about the test, never realizing the significance of the job they desire.

As an officer, you will make life-and-death decisions daily. You will be responsible for your crew’s training and welfare. Preparing for a test is not enough. That only gets you in the door. Being a good officer is a lifelong endeavor.

Once an aspiring officer asked, “What are the fewest classes I can take to get promoted as soon as possible?” This individual cared about the promotion and himself, not the job and his crew.

Unlike when you became a firefighter, you will not have a 12- to 16-week academy to become an officer. Unfortunately, most fire departments are extremely deficient in succession planning, officer academies, and leadership development. Most likely, you will have to learn on the job and make a lot of mistakes. Just make sure they are not life-and-death mistakes.

Focusing on the test will also make you more nervous, insecure, and competitive. All of these traits will detract from your becoming a safe, effective officer. Instead, focus on building your knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Think of KSAs as your officer muscles. You must build them to be a strong officer. You cannot control what will be on the test, but you can control your KSAs.

Your KSAs involve oral and written communications, tactical knowledge, people skills, command presence, knowledge of standard operating procedures and policy, leadership skills, and so on. You have control over these KSAs through training. What you don’t know on the test or on the job is how those KSAs will be used. The scenario could be a car, a house, or a high-rise fire; an intoxicated crew member; an irate citizen; or a teaching demonstration. Focus on the KSAs because they are the only things you can control.

If you are going for battalion chief, start talking to battalion chiefs you respect. Ride along and learn the job. Find out the daily routine, challenges, responsibilities, and tempo. Just reading the job description isn’t enough. Ask what current issues are facing the department and how the battalion chiefs are affected. More importantly, ask yourself, “What am I going to do to improve the situation and the department as a battalion chief?”

Find a good mentor. Some characteristics of a good mentor include having integrity, being respected in the department, staying calm under pressure, being an experienced tactician, possessing the ability to get along with people, and being willing to spend time with you. Good mentors will let you sit in the hot seat. If your department allows, you may be able to run calls, answer the phone, mitigate routine tasks, and even run the shift for part of the day. Be aggressive about getting real-world experience.

In addition, get feedback from your mentor and those around you on what you can do to improve your mindset. Do you need to be more assertive, get more experience, learn more about tactics, or practice arrival reports? Today’s fire service promotion assessment centers are not a big scary secret. If you have prepared for the job, you will do well on the test. But, that’s somehow a funky concept for thousands of firefighters each year. Just like becoming a parent, no amount of training for running a fireground simulation will quite be like running the real thing. However, training for the real thing is the only way to prepare.

 

“What Are They Looking For?”

 

Often, aspiring officers facing an assessment center will ask, “What are they looking for?” The problem with that question is that candidates often feel that the assessment center process and assessors are “looking for” something or someone different than what constitutes a good officer. Somehow, many candidates think they can figure out the test exercises ahead of time and fake it during the assessment center. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

There are no shortcuts to assessment center preparation, just as there are no shortcuts to becoming a good officer. Success in both takes time, commitment, training, and a detailed plan.

Scenario 1. We were dispatched to a house fire at 2 p.m. on a July afternoon. The ambient temperature was 106°F. The first-in company officer reported, “Battalion 9, Engine 53 arrived. We have three houses involved with a grass fire spreading from them. Engine 53 will be fire attack. We have a water supply. Next-in, take the next house.”

The troops did a bang-up job. The first-in captain’s actions were pivotal. At no time was he thinking, “I hope this sounds right, I hope I am doing it right, I hope I am doing what they are looking for.” He simply relied on his years of training and cumulative experience. He was job focused, not test focused. He had honed his craft, and it paid off that hot summer day in Sacramento. Although we were dispatched to a single-house fire, the first-arriving captain found that three homes and vegetation were burning. He didn’t let this throw him.

It’s the same way in the assessment center. You can’t possibly know exactly what the problem or challenges will be. You just have to be ready for anything. Remember, you cannot control the test, but you can control your level of preparation.At the moment of truth in a test or on the fireground, you will not rise to the level of expectation; you will fall to the level of your training.

Scenario 2. Our department has launched a Command Training Center (CTC), modeled after that of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. We use fireground simulations extensively. In the short year the CTC has been in operation, we have seen an improvement in fireground communications, tactics, and safety.

We recently ran a fire at 6 a.m. It was the one you prepare for and read about but are never quite ready for: “Engine 105, 106, 110; Truck 106; Rescue 20; Medic 110; Battalion 7. Apartment fire, possible victims trapped, multiple calls.”

The alarm assignment leaped out of bed from their respective stations, mounted their rigs, and proceeded to the scene. They had no time to wonder how things looked or about what they were looking for. I was glad we didn’t take the “least number of classes to get promoted as quickly as possible.” We relied solely on our training and experience, which had been plentiful. It was time to respond.

Suddenly, the mobile data terminal (MDT) beeped with an update: “Two children trapped.”

Then dispatch chimed in: “Battalion 7, fire dispatch, we now have a report of a third person. An adult male is attempting to rescue the children.”

I relayed this to the responding companies. Chances were that each of those responding company officers had enough on his plate: maps, hydrants, preplans, tactical channels, crew issues, travel routes, SCBA, and so on. Many of them didn’t see the MDT message because of the above, but they heard my update.

Then, the first engine arrived: “Battalion 7, Engine 105 arrived. Two-story apartment complex; smoke visible from the inside of the complex. E 105 will be fire attack. Second in, give us a water supply and assist with rescue.”

The first-arriving company officer (who, by the way, was an acting captain getting ready for the test with his “real” captain sitting behind him mentoring) gave an update: “Battalion 7, E 105 is switching to rescue mode; we have three persons trapped. We will need assistance with fire attack.”

I arrived and assumed command, set up the command post, and began assigning subsequent companies. E 105 encountered heavy fire from the front door and windows of the involved apartment. The entire front family room egress was well involved. The victims were behind the labyrinth of fire. To attack the fire from this angle would mean certain death—the victims would be cooked by the ensuing steam, fire, and gases injected into whatever habitable space may be remotely inside.

Ventilation began immediately; additional hoselines worked in concert with the rescue, and a medical group was set up with three ambulances—one for each of the victims. E 105 began a vent-enter-search (VES) operation to the second-story apartment bedroom window. As soon as crews broke out the window, flames erupted out of the opening. The two babies were inside. Dad went in to get them, and all three perished.

The after-incident report showed that all three had perished prior to our timely response. Many of us questioned all the tactics that night. Was there something we could have done differently? The response was lightning fast, the ventilation was quick and accurate, the hoselines were placed properly, and the VES tactic was swift and appropriate, given the situation.

What helped us all walk away with some semblance of peace was the simple decision made by an aspiring officer. Through his training, he decided to make the educated decision to perform VES rather than randomly put hoselines into service and surely ruin any chance of victim survival. We cannot always control the conditions, but we can control our response to them, through training. Our troops did outstanding work that horrible morning, but the outcome was already set prior to our call. We all slept a little easier that week (not that night) knowing that we truly did everything we could.

It’s just not good enough to try and find out “what they are looking for” when preparing for promotion. Seize every opportunity to train, learn, fail, learn, and train some more. It is better to make mistakes on a simulator than during the real thing.

 

Think As If You Already Have Been Promoted

 

The next part of having a job-oriented mindset is thinking as if you already have been promoted. Many folks facing an assessment center want to know what to say, do, and think so the assessors will give them points and they will get promoted. The problem is that they are so test-focused. Being test-focused heightens nerves, creates anxiety, and makes it hard to stay calm. These are not good KSAs.

If you prepare through diligent planning, training, attending workshops, reading books, asking questions, sitting in the front right seat, getting a mentor, critiquing fires, and running simulators at the fire house, you will do well in the job and on the test. Just be an officer!

As you develop your KSAs for the job, start making the mental paradigm shift from candidate to officer. Assessors are looking for officers, not candidates or test takers. You must enter the process as though you are already a lieutenant, a captain, or a battalion chief. This places you in the proper mindset.

You can accomplish this by entering the assessment center as if you were walking into your fire house and looking at the assessors as members of your crew or officers from another department who came to see how your department does business.

Remember, all of the scenarios, simulations, and exercises you conduct in an assessment center assume that you have been promoted. The sooner you make that mental transition, preferably before game day, the better.

Common exercises start out, “You are the captain of Engine 3. Today is March 7, and it’s your first day with your new crew ….” Another example is, “You are the lieutenant of Engine 10; you will respond to a structure fire.”

The goal of an assessment center is to evaluate your KSAs for the job of fire officer; the only way to do that successfully is to place you in the position of fire officer. A good rule of thumb is to go in as the position you want to be when you come out. If you go into the assessment center as a captain, you will leave as a captain. If you go in as a firefighter, you will leave as a firefighter. This also holds true for incumbent officers who want to promote to chief ranks.

 

Some Pitfalls

 

A common struggle for captains testing for battalion chief is to treat the scenarios as a captain. It’s often the subtle actions and comments that separate the battalion chiefs from the captains. Comments such as “They will have to solve this” and “The department will need to address this” do not exude ownership or leadership. The officer, especially a chief officer, needs to realize that he is “they” and that he is the department to the troops and the public. Don’t pass the buck.

Another common pitfall for the aspiring chief officer is failure to take action and create solutions, showing vision, creativity, and initiative. Officers take the lead, and chief officers must drive the organization, not wait to get a map. The need for permission or failure to clearly state what role you will play in solving the problem often results in another trip to the assessment center.

Plan your solutions ahead of time. Spend a lot of time thinking of the current problems and potential solutions in your organization and how you will implement them. If you wait until you are in an assessment center, with the clock ticking, to come up with a good labor/management relationship-building plan, you are too late. As you make the mental paradigm shift to officer, you should be thinking about these things. Your plans must go beyond the generic “improve communications” comment. You must have done serious research in all areas affecting the rank you desire. Roll up your sleeves; get dirty with preparation. When it comes to labor/management, for example, be prepared to illustrate systems such as Relationship by Objectives (Google it), especially how you—not “they”—would implement it.

 

Be Yourself

 

Be yourself. So, how do you be yourself in the testing arena? Simply get good at the job before the test to the point that you believe in yourself. Check your baggage, plan, train, and make the mental paradigm shift.

Also, remember that you have nothing to lose. You must adopt an attitude that says, “Even if I don’t make the list this time, I will gain knowledge, skills, and abilities. I will be a better officer, and I still have the greatest job in the world.” This is different from pillow tossing because you did this at the end of the preparation period and still gave it all you have. You simply take an account of your blessings: family, friends, health, and being a firefighter. It’s very liberating to remember that they aren’t testing you so you can keep your job.

Some of my greatest blessings were disappointments when they first happened. I have had to wait for promotions, have been unable to get into the colleges I wanted, and have had many personal challenges. All of these events became blessings because they built character and integrity and allowed me to be empathetic to the next person in line who will go through the same thing. Empathy just happens to be a good officer trait, too.

 

PLANNING

 

Many candidates fail the process before they even start because they fail to plan. They start too late and try to read a book or take a class a month before the test. It takes years of dedication to develop the KSAs needed to be a good officer and to perform well in an assessment center.

Books and classes on promotion can be excellent tools. They can help you develop a plan, identify weaknesses, apply improvement strategies, and give you a host of other benefits. In addition, these tools can help you understand the process and any potential roadblocks. However, books and classes are only part of the overall myriad of components that make up a detailed plan.

Firefighters often fail to plan the promotional process. Most candidates buy the books needed, study, and may take a class or two. So much more is needed for the assessment center (and the job).

Conduct a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Strengths are those things within our sphere of influence over which we have control (that knowledge, skill, or ability that is within your skin)—for example, good writing skills or the ability to communicate orally. Weaknesses, although within your sphere of influence, are negatives. Perhaps you feel uncomfortable speaking in front of people, or you need to shore up your fireground tactical knowledge. Identify these strengths and weaknesses so you can make a plan that suits your needs.

Threats and opportunities are outside your sphere of influence. Opportunities represent such things as taking a class, consulting a mentor, participating in a workshop, teaching a drill, becoming a part-time instructor, and working on special projects.

Threats (sometimes called “challenges”) are those things outside of your skin that compete with your accomplishing the goal. Although the word “threat” has a negative connotation, threats can often be good things; they just compete with your ability to achieve the goal of promotion. Examples include spouse, kids, house projects, and vacations.

The key is to identify these items early and factor them into your plan. As an example, you perform a SWOT analysis and find that you are good at writing and fire tactics (strengths); you need to improve your communication skills, especially in front of groups (weakness); your captain wants to help you and will let you sit in the seat (opportunities); and you have a two-week vacation planned for the next month (threat).

With all of this in mind, you ask the captain if you can ride in the seat during the day and start teaching drills on topics that you know to improve your weakness. At home, you sit down with your wife and kids to discuss the vacation. You agree that you will be totally focused on family during the two-week vacation, not thinking about the job at all. Your family agrees to give you plenty of room after vacation to focus on the job and test, even taking care of extra house duties to help out. In addition, they will listen to you give some presentations on department hot topics to help your issue with public speaking. Many candidates will not plan to this extent, but it furthers your advantage.

 

•••

 

Today’s aspiring fire officers are likely to face an assessment center. All, if promoted, will face the job some day. The test and job are more closely linked than you realize.

By eliminating barriers and baggage, you will eliminate hidden land mines. You will then be able to set up a plan that prepares you to make the paradigm shift from candidate to officer. By entering the process as an officer, you will be in the proper mentality to approach anything that comes your way.

Do your homework! Assessors are looking for officers. Study yourself, the department, and the position. Only then can you truly be the officer you want to be and show your knowledge, skills, and abilities.

 

The Leadership Triangle

 

Another key factor in your promotional planning is the leadership triangle. You must know your triangle of leadership. Inside the triangle lies the answer to many questions you may be asked about yourself, your philosophies, the job, your department, and the future.

The three sides are you, the job, and your department. You must do copious homework on all three if you want to be prepared for the job and the test. Think of the triangle as a scope through which you find the “right answer.” Because you comprise one side, the triangle and “right answer” are different for everyone.

Example: You and your buddy are testing for captain with the same fire department. Obviously, you share two sides of the triangle—the job of captain and the department. The key here is in that third side: you. Only you can articulate your philosophy, leadership style, brand of logic, and the way you would handle a given situation. This is how we get more than one “right answer” to a question. The variable is the person answering the question.

The job of fire officer is not an exact science; it’s an art. Two good officers will most likely approach a given situation in different ways. Although they may have the same departmental SOPs and job description, their respective personalities and knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) will always factor into the equation.

This is good news! Again, rather than pressuring yourself to find “what they are looking for,” you are free to speak from your heart and simply state what you would do (which is what they’re looking for). The assessors want to see a confident and creative leader, not a second-guessing test taker who hopes he comes up with the right answer.

The assessment center is more subjective than it is objective. The key is having the KSAs to stand behind your answer.

How do you do homework on these three areas? Let’s look at the “you” segment. First, get out a legal pad of paper and ask yourself questions about yourself, including the following:

  • What’s my leadership style? How would I explain it? What does it look like?
  • What would be my goals and objectives the first day, month, and year?
  • What are my priorities?
  • What are my strengths? How did I get them? How will I use them in the future as an officer?
  • What are my weaknesses, and how can I improve them?
  • How will I build a team?

 

Questions about the job component would include the following:

  • What does our department need from the rank to which I am aspiring?
  • What do the troops need from me as a lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, and so on?
  • What challenges face the position, and how will I overcome them?
  • What does an outstanding officer in this rank look like?

 

Questions about the department segment would include the following:

  • What are the department culture and core values?
  • What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of the department?
  • What are the top three critical needs of the department, and how can I help fulfill those needs with my team?

 

Other components of your plan should be time-specific objectives (get better at oral communications, for example) and a cooling-off period to let your brain rest. Rest is just as important as preparation.

ANTHONY KASTROS is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and the author of Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center (Fire Engineering, 2006). He is a battalion chief with the Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire District and the founder of Trainfirefighters.com.

 

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