BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI
WHEN SHOULD YOU START STUDYING FOR your next fire service promotional examination? Start now; exam day will be here before you know it! Don’t wait until the last minute and risk doing poorly!
You don’t have the time? Nobody has tremendous amounts of extra time on their hands-we’re all busy for a variety of reasons. Learn time management and organizational skills; you’ll need them as a company or chief officer.
Each department schedules promotional examinations differently-every other year, every three years, and some every four years or longer. Even if your department holds a promotional exam every year or two, which might not seem like a long time, it can be an eternity depending on your current situation.
The Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department typically holds promotional examinations every 18 months, give or take. However, because of larger than normal failure rates, we exhausted our recent captain’s promotional list approximately four months after it was established, forcing us to hold another exam earlier than most candidates had expected. Out of the approximately 20 candidates who started the process, only five made the final list.
Similarly, with our current battalion chief promotional list, 12 started the process; only three made the final list. Two have been promoted and one remains on the list, which will be active for another 15 months.
Why did more than half of the individuals who applied for the positions not make the hiring list? In my opinion, the primary reason is that the candidates did not prepare themselves as well as they should have. Some prepared well, but not in the appropriate subject areas. The testing process for the captain’s and the battalion chief’s positions was appropriate and relevant; both positions are challenging, and the process should not be easy.
Another problem is that many candidates focus too much on the promotional process; they should also prepare for the position. If you are preparing for the position, it should not matter what is thrown at you in the promotional process-you should be ready to deal with virtually every situation on which you may be tested.
The key is whether you will be prepared for your next promotional exam. You need to be in great mental and physical shape to succeed; those who have experienced at least one promotional examination understand this. The promotional process can be draining on you, your family, and your coworkers.
If you think the job of a company or chief officer is easy, glamorous, and not too difficult, consider the liability, responsibility, and accountability that company and chief officers have within their organizations and the fire service. You are in for a rude awakening!
Think about this: Working toward the promotion is a full-time job; you must think, act, sleep, breathe, and continuously place yourself in the position to which you aspire at every possible moment. Don’t just prepare for the exam; prepare for the position!
If you are still certain beyond a reasonable doubt that you want to get promoted in the fire service, realize that it is not easy but it is definitely worth it. If you are ready to commit to becoming a company or chief officer, you ultimately need an action plan to get there.
Research the position. First, make sure you really want the promotion. Talk to people already in the position to which you aspire and those of higher ranks. They can provide valuable feedback and suggestions about not only their own position but also the promotional process itself. When I was preparing for the battalion chief exam, I put together a list of 10 questions to ask people already in the position and those ranking above it.
- What do you expect of a battalion chief at Santa Clara County Fire?
- What specific books should I study in addition to The Fire Chief’s Handbook; Managing Fire Services; the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s rules, regulations, policies, and procedures; the county mutual aid and automatic aid manual; and the department business plan?
- In addition to preparing for all-risk events, what specifically should I prepare myself for in the simulator?
- What personnel problems should I be aware of?
- Is there an oral interview? How should I prepare for it?
- What specific classes, education, and training should I pursue in addition to what I have already taken?
- What are the biggest challenges a battalion chief faces?
- What do you like/dislike about your present position?
- If you had to do it all over again, would you have taken the promotional exam to be where you are today?
The responses to the above survey exposed me to the reality of the battalion chief’s position, enabling me to create my own description of the position, its challenges and rewards, and what is entailed. Do not wait for the promotion to discover the position’s roles and responsibilities. Research the position in advance so you can better prepare yourself for it.
Consult with your family. Ensure your family is onboard with your decision to pursue promotion and the sacrifices that may have to be made. Not having them onboard can lead to serious short- and long-term problems. While you are studying and participating in a promotional process, you may have to cancel, postpone, or miss vacations and family outings.
Start studying now. How long do you think you have to study? Your preparation for promotion should have begun the day you got off probation and became a full-fledged firefighter. Your previous fire service experience can be very beneficial; everything you learned as a firefighter will help you as an officer. Your preparation began even before you were hired.Whether it is previous education or work or life experience, almost anything can be transferred to the fire service. If nothing else, as soon as the last examination was announced, you should have started preparing for the next one, knowing it would be here in 12 to 36 months.
Remember also that the required reading list material can run into thousands of pages. You cannot expect to learn everything there is to know about being an officer in six to 12 months.
Be on your best behavior. Remember, you are being watched at all times. I don’t say this to make you paranoid. This is reality. Everyone from the probationary firefighter to the chief is watching you, forming opinions (good and bad) about how you present yourself, perform your job, relate to people, and so forth. Don’t do anything you will regret later; your past may come back to haunt you in the future, especially when you go for the promotion. Your chief of department wants mature people who can make good decisions, use sound judgment, and present the department in the best light. Are you that person?
Review previous promotional flyers. They will provide you with valuable information on the promotional process, the books on the reading list, and the criteria for the position. If you cannot find a copy, obtain one from your human resources department; it is not confidential information, and a copy should be available.
Review promotion exam flyers from other departments to see what they require to take the exam, what their position entails, and what material will be on their exam. Even if you do not want to work for that department and want to stay at your own, you can still learn valuable information to better prepare yourself. Remember, if you see many departments are starting to impose minimum education, training, or experience requirements, it may be only a matter of time before your department does the same.
Our department recently rewrote the battalion chief job specifications to add a few certification classes and some educational requirements. Many who took the test previously may not be able to take the next test until they meet those requirements. Fortunately, I had already taken the required classes a few years ago, anticipating that they might be required in the future and knowing they will make me a better captain.
Update your resume. If you have not touched your resume in years, maybe even since you were originally hired, take time to update it. For company officer or lower positions, try your best to keep it to one page. Resumes of more than one page can be tough for the oral board to follow. Update your resume regularly, and back it up. You could pay someone else to do it, but why waste the money? I just started with a blank document on the computer and created it from scratch. At least I knew everything was accurate since I put it on there myself. Make sure you also have someone else look at it for spelling and grammatical errors.
Know the minimum qualifications. Find out the position’s minimum qualifications well before the test so you can properly meet them. Review previous job flyers, ask your human resources department, and consult your department’s administrative staff.
Remember that minimum qualifications do change over time; review them from time to time for updates. Don’t be shut out of the promotional process because you didn’t keep up-to-date!
Go beyond the minimum. Know what additional qualifications will enhance your standing well before the test. Realize that minimum qualifications are just that-minimum. Find out what highly desirable additional qualifications you can meet that will make you stand out from your competition. If they aren’t written down anywhere, talk to your fire chief and chief officers. Whether official or unofficial, they are something to which you should aspire.
The fire chief wants to promote people who go above and beyond the minimum, whatever the position. The chief doesn’t want to promote someone who is just a “slot filler.” Chiefs want positive role models; high achievers; and motivated, dedicated, and loyal people for management and leadership positions.
Know the written exam’s reading list. This can be found in previous job flyers, on department bulletin boards, or in department manuals, or you can ask your fire department senior staff or human resources department staff.
Be aware that the required reading for a promotional exam is extensive. Material in department manuals (e.g., rules and regulations, policies/procedures, standard operating procedures/guidelines) should be relatively easy; you ought to have learned that information as soon as you were hired. Many of these books should already be in your station or your personal library.
However, don’t fool yourself-you can’t read, comprehend, and retain that much information in a few months. This is another reason you should start studying for promotion as soon as you get off of probation. Reading the books well in advance will not only make you better at your current position but also allow you time to review the material at a leisurely pace immediately before the test instead of trying to cram and learn a huge amount of information in a short time.
Create your own promotional library. Don’t rely on checking out books from your department or borrowing them from others-they may not be available when you need them. Purchase your own copies to mark up and highlight, and always have them with you. You have to spend money to make money in life. Consider preparing for a promotional exam as an investment.
Understand as much as you can about your department. Visit the department Web site. Review department manuals. Find out the department’s current and future SWOTs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats); its current and future issues, problems, and programs; its mission statement; its current master, business, or strategic plan; its budget; and its annual run statistics. Find out about your union local, and understand its role.
You will be asked questions to determine your level of understanding of your department. If nothing else, once you get promoted, you will need to know all of that information to be able to answer questions from the public, your crew, and others.
Understand as much as you can about the community you protect and serve. Visit the community’s Web site and find out its demographics, the names/positions of its elected/appointed officials, its government structure, and its current and future SWOTs. This is critical for all candidates, but especially those who live outside the community in which they work. You won’t get promoted if your attitude is “Happiness is seeing the city I work for in my rearview mirror.”
Subscribe to fire service (and related) trade publications.There are many great fire service, EMS, and government trade publications such as Fire Engineering. Although you may see these at your fire station, don’t rely on being able to find the latest issue-get your own subscription sent to your home. You will likely be questioned on current trends and practices in the fire service.
The higher up the chain of command to which you aspire, the more you should also consider publications that cover local, state, and federal government issues. With your own subscription sent to your home, you can stay on top of issues and trends in the fire service and government. There is nothing worse than someone who is ignorant of his own industry and what is happening in other departments.
Subscribe to fire and EMS e-mail lists. Virtually every major fire service and EMS publication has a free e-mail list through which they send out news stories and other industry-related information. Fire Engineering is a good resource-visit www.fireengineering.com. Don’t just limit yourself to the fire service; consider local newspapers and media as well to ensure you are well-rounded and up-to-date on the latest information. Knowledge is power; the more informed you are, the more progressive you can be.
Get involved with fire and EMS associations. Virtually every discipline within the fire service (e.g., training, EMS, fire prevention, fire investigation) has a local, state, or federal association or organization. For example, our training staff is involved with the Santa Clara County Training Officers Association and has an opportunity to be involved with the Northern California Training Officers Association. Nationally, there is the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Getting involved with these groups keeps you up-to-date with your industry, its network, and other professionals with similar backgrounds and ultimately gives you the opportunity to make a positive difference for the future.
Develop expertise in a specific area. Everybody is an expert in something; the tough part is finding out what that is. Find something to become an expert in so you become the go-to person: training, fire prevention, EMS, fire investigation, safety, technical rescue, hazardous materials, legal issues, computers/technology, and leadership. As the “go-to” expert in a particular subject, you can gain credibility and a reputation in a certain subject area-the one area the department can’t do without. This reputation will follow you as you go through the promotional process.
Create your mentor network. We all need role models and mentors to help us succeed. Find mentors inside and outside of your department. Pick people you trust and respect, with whom you are comfortable communicating regularly. Don’t limit yourself just to people in the position you are interested; look also to those of higher rank. The mentoring doesn’t have to be formal-it’s going on informally every day in firehouses nationwide. The more opinions you can obtain, the better you can make an informed decision as to what you should be doing with your career. Ask your mentors to review your resume, offer advice, answer your questions, and be a sounding board to ensure you are going in the right direction for promotion. You need not always agree with your mentors, but at least be respectful and listen to what they say and thank them for their advice. It is then up to you to formulate your own plan of action after considering as many viewpoints as possible.
Select your department assignments carefully. You can’t expect to get promoted or do well on the exam if you have hidden yourself at the slowest station with an officer with zero motivation who is dissatisfied with the department, his personal life, and his career. However, firefighters often have no choice in their station assignments. Do what you have to do to make the best of your situation.
If you have the opportunity, look to work with motivated and respected officers at busy firehouses to gain experience. Obtain experience on different types of apparatus (engines, trucks, rescues, aerials, and so forth), and work on any 40-hour staff assignments that may open up. A staff assignment will open your eyes to the bigger picture of the fire service. You will learn so much more about the department, its operations, and the administrative side of things. Ultimately, you want to offer a diverse background to the officer positions you want to fill.
Practice, practice, practice! Practice taking written examinations that simulate promotional examinations (many study guides are available for books you may find on your promotional reading list). Attend as many training and educational seminars as you can. Besides local training opportunities, there are also annual fire service trade shows and conferences that provide valuable training and exposure to the latest information and techniques in the fire service.
Become an instructor for your local junior college fire technology program. An instructor must be up-to-date on his subject. Ask those people in the positions to which you aspire to provide mock oral interviews and any other guidance for the upcoming promotional exam. They all had to pass some type of promotional exam to get promoted, so they have at least seen some version of what you will go through. Practice size-ups, strategy and tactics, and apparatus deployment at all types of emergencies so those concepts are second nature. People typically fail for one of two reasons-they are unprepared, or they are nervous. Being prepared will help with your nervousness.
Keep your fire service passion. Passion is the key to success. Life is full of ups and downs; successful people roll with the punches, pick themselves up, and dust themselves off when they take a fall. You must remain passionate if you want to get where you want to go. It’s contagious and can only work to your advantage, especially in the promotional process.
Don’t waste your time trying if you don’t want to be the best you can be at whatever you are doing, especially in a promotional exam. You should want to do so well that you do not have to take the examination a second time.
If you think you are not ready for this exam and will just wait for the next one (which could be 12 to 36 months away, if not longer), you will never be ready.
By taking the exam, you will learn more about yourself and the position you are in as well as the position to which you aspire. Plus, you will experience the process. Most departments do not change their promotional processes drastically every time. If you do well enough and make the promotional eligibility list, you may become an acting officer, depending on your staffing rules.
If you do have to take the promotional examination a second time, I hope you have learned from your first time so you can now come out even better, hopefully on the top of the list. I still have not found any benefit to being a career test taker.
Once the process is over, whatever the outcome, take detailed notes should you have to take the test again. Talk to the proctors and discuss how you did, your strengths and weaknesses, and what you could do better next time.
Find out what the top-ranking candidates did to get the top scores; learn from their successes and positive traits. The proctors may or may not be able to speak about your performance, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If nothing else, it shows that you care about your performance and you want to be the best you can be. It also is a great way to add to your mentor network for the future.
Do not just prepare for the process but also for the position. Preparing for the position will help you to make an easier transition once you get promoted. The bottom line is that you need to set yourself up for success long before the process begins. Doing so will greatly increase your odds of success.
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a 15-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College Fire Technology Program, in Hayward, California, where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes for 14 years, was fire technology coordinator for almost five years, and was EMT program director for seven years. Prziborowski is president of the Northern California Training Officers Association executive board and is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, and hazardous materials technician and a state-licensed paramedic. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration and is in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.