Promotional Assessment Center Preparation

BY FREDDIE FERNANDEZ and DAVID JOHNS

The promotional assessment center creates anxiety and fear for many promotional candidates. Put into perspective, these reactions are common when facing the unknown. This fear may discourage capable candidates from participating in the promotional process. The good news is that with proper planning and preparation, the assessment center can become just another day at the office. A day at our office (the firehouse) is typically filled with the unknown. It is our training that allows firefighters to function in a professional manner during any incident. Taking the same approach used in the firehouse for the assessment center will increase confidence, reduce anxiety, and lead to a superior performance.

Competent fire officers respond to a variety of emergencies and rely on their preplanning and experience to make good decisions. Subordinate coaching, mentoring, and guidance are a large part of an effective leader’s day. Respected members are skilled at delivering valuable presentations daily. A senior officer manages a great deal of paperwork and messages each shift. Seen from this perspective, an assessment center examination is a reflection of what we do each tour of duty. With this new perspective, we can adapt to the fear of the unknown and preplan for the assessment center, thus enabling a positive outcome. So now that the mystery of the assessment center has been revealed, let’s take a “360°” view of an assessment center to provide a better understanding of the process.

Assessment centers are the gold standard for promotional selection in the public safety sector. Germany was the first to use assessment centers in the 1930s to select officers by creating simulations and then choosing the candidates who best handled the simulation, therefore predicting future performance in a controlled environment. The United States Central Intelligence Agency used this process to select spies during World War II. Soon after, AT&T became the first private company to use the assessment center process for management positions. Currently, thousands of organizations use this method to identify the best person for the job. Simply put, the purpose of an assessment center is to identify the most competent individual for the job.

To effectively perform in an assessment center, a candidate should posses a thorough understanding of the evaluation criteria. Examination development begins with a Job Task Analysis (JTA), which determines the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) necessary to effectively carry out the job description of the position being tested. The JTA is also used to determine the exercises to be evaluated. Once the exercises are determined, the JTA assists in establishing the dimensions (more on dimensions later) to be observed by the assessors. JTAs take an in-depth look at the position being tested for. The process may include survey, interview, and questionnaire input from incumbents of the position. The goal of the JTA is to identify the frequency, criticality, and validity of the KSAs needed to effectively perform in the role being evaluated.

Early in the preparation process many candidates ask, “What are they looking for?” The best answer is: How the top officers at your department handle the situations being evaluated. Receiving high marks in an assessment center is directly related to the dimensions used by the assessors. Dimensions are behaviors, characteristics, personality traits, and actions the JTA has identified in superior officers. Each testing company or human resources department uses its own dimensions that relate to the JTA.

DIMENSIONS

Candidates should request a list of the dimensions for their assessment center and study them to achieve an understanding of “what they are looking for.” In basketball, the only way to score points is for the ball to go through the hoop. In the assessment center, dimensions equal points; therefore, to score points, you have to hit the dimensions being evaluated by the assessors. In this context, the term “hit” means to demonstrate to the assessors that you possess a high degree of the dimensions being evaluated. Below is a list of the most common dimensions, followed by a brief description.

Communication

You must demonstrate the ability to communicate accurately and to clearly convey information, ideas, tasks, and directives to groups or individuals. A successful candidate will display self-assurance and command presence and avoid distracting mannerisms. Candidates should have an appropriate vocabulary and proper sentence structure. The process includes verbal and nonverbal communication, good message delivery, and gauging how the message is being received.

Tips: Have a logical flow with clear pronunciation, maintain eye contact at all times, and show enthusiasm when appropriate.

Pitfalls: Unorganized rambling with distracting mannerisms such as extraneous expressions like “uh” and “you know.” Failure to maintain eye contact will lower your score.

Problem Identification and Analysis

Successful fire officers are problem solvers and possess effective problem identification and analysis skills. They look at the situation from different angles and identify underlying issues. Begin by conducting fact-finding investigations while seeking all sides of the issues. Often, the symptoms are brought to the forefront, and the real problem can be missed. An example would be a reliable employee who recently started performing poorly on basic tasks. Research may find that he recently lost a family member; the performance issue is a symptom of the real problem of coping with the loss. Another key component of performing well is to have an effective Problem Solving Model that assists in developing achievable performance-improvement plans. As in the real world, assessment centers require candidates to systematically solve issues in a variety of exercise formats. Brilliant results come from having a methodical format to address the problems by implementing multiple resources while identifying obstacles and contingencies. Implement a follow-up structure to ensure the desired goals have been met. The consequences of failure should be made clear to everyone involved.

Tips: Obtain additional information, and determine underlying causes.

Pitfalls: Making assumptions and not asking clarifying questions.

Interpersonal Skills

They involve the ability to interact positively with others while showing understanding, friendliness, courtesy, tact, empathy, concern, and politeness. Being able to manage and resolve conflicts, disagreements, and confrontations in a constructive manner will demonstrate competence in this dimension. Today’s fire service is much different from the fire service of even 10 years ago. Interpersonal skills in the past consisted of “suck it up, Sally” or similar phrases we won’t put in print. Currently, many conflicts and disagreements grow so large that handling them becomes difficult; some even turn into lawsuits. Having excellent interpersonal skills has become critical in handling problems early before they get blown out of proportion, making interpersonal skills highly desirable for officers.

Tips: Provide constructive feedback, put yourself in the other’s place, and follow the rules of courtesy.

Pitfalls: Not listening attentively and interrupting.

Judgment and Decision Making

Officers must have the aptitude to generate and evaluate alternatives and be able to commit to actions even in uncertain situations. The decision-making process may be equally as important as the actual decision arrived at in the assessment center. Be sure to look at different options and the ramifications of those options before deciding on a course of action. Explaining the thought process is imperative to a high score. The ability to differentiate between black and white is simple. The ability to make a judgment call with limited information and choose a course of action based on a sound decision-making process identifies the best candidates.

Tips: Validate your decisions by explaining the process used to come up with the decision.

Pitfalls: Indecision, not looking at alternative paths.

Planning and Organizing

The fire officer of today has to excel in planning and organizing by structuring priorities, using proper time management proficiency, defining objectives, developing strategies, and establishing follow-up mechanisms. Ask yourself: How well do I plan and direct my fire attack? Do I call for additional resources early? Do I identify contingency plans? Do I get age-appropriate supplies for the school presentation? Do I schedule walk-through inspections on the new building going up in our zone? Am I staying on time and addressing priority items first? Be certain to identify specific and measurable goals for each step in the plan. Establish achievable timelines so the objectives can be met.

Tips: Prioritize, and use common sense and available resources.

Pitfalls: Failing to anticipate obstacles and develop contingency plans.

Leadership

Leadership at times may be hard to define, but, like command presence, it is easily recognized when displayed. Identifiable traits include effectively supervising others through directing, coaching, mentoring, supporting, and delegating. It is notable when subordinates are motivated and challenged to reach above average. There is a direct link between the performance of a team and its leader. Dynamic leaders in the fire service recognize that they have to wear many hats to perform effectively.

Tips: Demonstrate a thorough knowledge of your department’s policies and standard operating guidelines (SOGs). You must be a good follower to be a good leader.

Pitfalls: Not taking responsibility for the work product.

Although these brief descriptions of common dimensions will get you started, it is imperative to research the agency delivering the test and directly apply the dimensions and definitions being evaluated. A thorough understanding of dimensions will allow a candidate to understand how each dimension is evaluated and how dimensions apply to all the exercises. The value of a great coach can’t be overemphasized when it comes to incorporating dimensional strategies and terminology into your answer format.

Most 911 responses are simply a variation of typical emergencies, subordinate issues are predictable, and presentations involve speaking about familiar topics. The same holds true for the assessment center. Review the job description and duties for the position you are testing, and make a list of the common duties these positions entail at your agency. You will find that the duties are similar throughout most agencies.

COMMON EXERCISES

Following are descriptions of the common exercises you may encounter in the assessment center. Obtain a list of the exercises being evaluated for your assessment center to maximize your preparation strategy. You will be able to develop the KSAs required for successful responses, quality employee development, and superior presentations.

Emergency Tactical

Successfully mitigating the emergency tactical simulation is not much different from handling a real emergency. The biggest differences with a simulation are that you have to verbalize all of your actions in detail, and it usually isn’t in real time. The simulation, as well as a real event, requires performing ongoing size-up, identifying incident priorities, setting strategic goals to satisfy the incident priorities, and assigning crews to carry out tactical objectives. Always consider safety in all the actions proposed. Proper implementation of the National Incident Management System and an effective accountability system are fundamental to success. The JTA will identify the most frequent types of incidents in your jurisdiction for your promotional rank. Your preparation should include addressing the emergencies to which you most frequently respond.

Typical testing formats used during the emergency tactical exercises are the following:

  • Static. This format provides typical information such as building description, weather, time of day, fire location, units responding, and occupant information. A few minutes are allowed to review the information; a specific amount of time is set for the presentation of how to handle the incident, typically without interruptions.
  • Modified Static with Updates. This format is similar to the static format, but it provides additional information at specific intervals. There are typically two or three updates at preset times so that all candidates receive the same information. The updates commonly deal with the progression of the fire, occupant status, or strategy and tactics. You must adapt your incident action plan (IAP) to the updates as you would on a live emergency scene.
  • Static with Questions. This format is similar to the modified static format, except that questions are added. You will be asked to answer specific or general questions in each section. Your IAP must address the questions and be adapted as needed to reflect the additional information provided. There will likely be a strict time limit within which to answer the questions.
  • Dynamic Role Play. This format is most reflective of an actual emergency incident. This method uses live role players, radios, and feedback to your orders, questions, or directions to crews. Be prepared to handle obstacles such as delayed responses, ineffective crew performance, equipment issues, or poor water supply.

Tips: Tactical exercises may use videos or pictures including elevations and plot plans. Extracting as much of the information from what is given will be crucial to making appropriate decisions. Consider or mention everything in the scenario in your response. Even small mistakes in information analysis will cripple your actions. Follow your policies and SOGs or standards in all assessment center exercises.

Pitfalls: Failure to adapt the IAP to changing conditions or updated information.

Subordinate Counseling

Human resources are the most valuable assets fire officers manage. Therefore, as already noted, excellent interpersonal skills are mandatory for a thriving leader. The most common subordinate counseling exercise format involves a live role player; however, the format could be similar to the static tactical format. Make sure you implement an achievable performance improvement plan in your problem solutions. Most performance problems are a result of underlying personal issues. Probe for the underlying issue after placing the employee at ease. Catching nonverbal clues, maintaining eye contact, and listening attentively to elicit the employee’s situation will result in a productive counseling session. Seeking input from the subordinate for the improvement plan will earn extra points. As with all exercises, don’t forget the potential consequences of action or nonaction.

Tips: Don’t jump to conclusions; always ask clarifying questions. Listen carefully; then repeat any statements made by the subordinate to ensure unambiguous communication. Have the subordinate restate any action plans or commitments to increase effectiveness.

Pitfalls: Not correlating subtle clues provided by the role player or found in the background information.

Presentations

Typical presentation types are instructional, demonstrative, informative, persuasive, and inspirational/motivational. Often, the topics for the presentation are related to current events at your agency or a teaching topic based on current industry trends as identified by the JTA. Prepare for various audience types, and tailor your presentation to the audience members. A group of elementary students cannot be spoken to in the same way as you would speak to high school students or homeowner groups. Take every opportunity to promote your department by describing the services your agency provides, and weave in an interesting story to keep the audience’s attention. Often, the ease and comfort of your delivery and the structure of your presentation are as important as the content. A format of introduction, main points, summary, and closing can be effective.

Tips: As in all exercises, timing is critical. If you effectively use all the time allotted and your competition doesn’t, you are likely to score higher. The summary step is the best area in which to manage time.

Pitfalls: Speaking in jargon to a nonfire service audience can turn off listeners and detract from the intended outcome.

In Basket

This format is most commonly found at the higher levels of supervision. Candidates receive a challenging number of items such as e-mails, messages, memoranda, calendars, rosters, and so on. A limited time is allowed to set priorities, organize schedules, and respond to the items. The in basket typically contains multiple items on various topics; some items are related, and some involve scheduling conflicts. This part of the test is designed to be overwhelming and taxing to replicate the duties encountered in a hectic day at the office. Judgment and decision-making skills are crucial. The answer format can be oral or written. Either response format evaluates communication skills and grammar. Formatted response sheets or just blank paper for free flow responses may be provided. Your answers must be thorough and complete. A successful candidate, like a successful manager, will use a systematic approach, be detailed, implement follow-up plans, and keep the chain of command informed. Not everything will be black and white; you may have to use your discretion and be prepared to make inferences about related items.

Tips: Be sure to review all items in the in basket prior to making a decision or taking an action. Mark the calendar immediately with any time commitments, and adjust as needed.

Pitfalls: Handling an item prior to reviewing all the aspects.

Interview

The interview provides an opportunity to tell a panel or the chief about yourself. Most interviews begin with a question about your background and qualifications for the position. This is your chance to shine while letting the panel know you are confident in your KSAs to carry out the duties of the position. A thorough knowledge of your resumé and how your background qualifies you for the position will allow for a confident response. Most often, this is followed by situational questions asking for your actions to common events faced by your rank at your agency such as interpersonal issues, public relations activities, and emergency responses.

  • Situational Responses. The situational response questions are commonly incorporated in the interview process but can be used as a stand-alone exercise and double as a presentation. Provide information sufficient to allow you to make a decision and choose a course of action. Anything is fair game in the interview, but most questions fall into the categories of workflow/policy, management issues, or emergency situations. As in all exercises, preplan potential items you may encounter, and practice your responses on video.

Tips: Prepare a resumé and print out a copy for each member of the panel. Dress appropriately, and prepare to make a positive first impression

Pitfalls: Poor eye contact or sitting posture can suggest a lack of confidence.

•••

Understanding the assessment center process and proper preparation will lower anxiety and allow for excellent performance in the assessment center just as training helps you prepare for and perform on the fireground. The purpose of an assessment center is to identify the candidates who possess the KSAs identified in the job task analysis. To score at the top of the list, you must have and demonstrate those KSAs during the test. Each testing company further breaks down KSAs into identifiable dimensions. There are no magic pills or buzzwords to score at the top of your promotional register. Demonstrating the behaviors identified in the dimensions is how to score points. The most proficient fire officers demonstrate these KSAs on a daily basis. Get to know the top officers in your department, study the job description, and prepare yourself to fill the seat. A coach and self-evaluation will help you to identify the areas on which you need work. Then, seek out the training that will help you to achieve your goals. Apply this information into your practice sessions, and you will be on your way to performing effectively and obtaining the badge.

FREDDIE FERNANDEZ, deputy fire chief of operations with Miami (FL) Fire-Rescue, is a 30-year fire service veteran and has more than 28 years of teaching experience. He is a principal in Fire Assessment Center Prep.

DAVID JOHNS has served 23 years with Palm Beach County (FL) Fire-Rescue, where he is a district chief. He is an active fire service instructor and a principal in Fire Assessment Center Prep.

Freddie Fernandez and David Johns will present “Promotional Assessment Center Preparation” on Monday, April 22, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at FDIC 2013 in Indianapolis.

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