BY TOM DeMINT
The way in which fire departments promote firefighters to the company officer position varies from department to department. Many use an assessment center system, a testing process designed to evaluate the skills and behaviors of candidates for promotion. The process includes some objective-based written testing; however, it may seem somewhat subjective as candidates attempt to demonstrate their skills and aptitudes before a panel of evaluators with their writing, managerial, and fireground skills. Although the process may seem subjective, the human resource experts who developed the processes tell us that panel members can and do score candidates objectively. The following is not intended as a guide for succeeding in a fire department assessment center. Instead, below are some of the pitfalls and attitudinal roadblocks that prevent many highly qualified candidates from obtaining the promotion they seek.
Many departments use a system of seniority and objective-based aptitude and skills testing. If you work for one of these departments, do not move on to the next article just yet; many of the following suggestions apply to anyone seeking promotion to the first level of fire department management, the company officer.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember one thing: Prepare for the position, not the test. You will be assessed on your skills as an officer, not as a test taker.
WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING FOR
In the film Miracle, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) and Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) are selecting players for the legendary 1980 United States Olympic hockey team. As Patrick reviews the list of players that Brooks is selecting, he tells him, “You’re not picking the best players.” Brooks replies, “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right players.”1
In reviewing Brooks’ methods for selecting the team’s members, it is evident that many of the criteria used are similar to those used by a fire department assessment center. Brooks looked for skill, fortitude, discipline, leadership, and cooperation in the “right” players. He looked for the chemistry he believed would work for the team; he cut the one-dimensional players even though they possessed more skills.
Fire department assessment centers do the same. Scores of different test elements are combined to identify the candidate who is right for the job. Consistent performance throughout all the assessment center components is more important than acing the fire problem or in-basket exercise; you should also score well on the writing exercise. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France with only a single stage victory in 2005; he gained his overall victory with his day-to-day consistency.
Departments are looking for lieutenants and captains who have abilities across the spectrum of responsibilities inherent in the position. Dealing with ethical issues in the firehouse, customer service, training, fire prevention, and other day-to-day roles of the company officer are more common than commanding structure fires. Fire departments and third parties design assessment centers to identify proficiency in these areas along with the tactical skills required for emergency response. However, don’t forget that emergency response is the reason we are here, and the company officer is the keystone to performing at these operations. Just as the skilled fireground commander must be able to handle company management issues, the skilled manager must be able to function effectively on emergency scenes. Leadership is the common thread between the two.
Who is the right person for the job? It’s a highly subjective question; however, candidates demonstrating a sense of integrity, trust, intelligence, skill, and experience just might have an edge.
PITFALLS AND ROADBLOCKS
The following are comments I have often heard at the conclusion of an assessment center. Many of these statements indicate the personal roadblocks and beliefs that may prevent candidates from succeeding in the promotional process.
“I’ve been here forever, and they keep bypassing me.” Candidates may feel this way before and after an assessment process. It is frustrating for veterans to watch less experienced and less tenured firefighters get promoted. These unhappy candidates should not get caught up in why these younger and less practiced firefighters are scoring better than they are. Instead, they should identify what they need to do to be as successful. You can be and are responsible for your performance. Worrying about others against whom you are competing will take you off your game.
If a company officer applicant is approaching the assessment center with the same approach each time, he should ask himself what he is doing to prevent his own advancement. A common complaint I hear is, “Those other guys are just playing ‘the game,’ and I am not going to play. If they want me, they’ll promote me.” This is similar to the statement, “I am just not a test taker.” Moreover, what message are you sending (perhaps subliminally) to the assessors? Maybe you are saying, “I am not cooperative to organizational systems, procedures, values, and cultures.”
First, this is not a game. Assessment centers are competitive and are a proven method of selecting firefighters ready for promotion. Being prepared is essential to success. Again, prepare for the position, not the test. The belief that the assessment system works against specific firefighters is absolutely ridiculous.
“What about all my experience?” Numerous departments consider experience when they develop a scoring system, but the weight of the experiential factor varies throughout departments, since some departments give no credit for experience.
We all know the axiom, “Twenty years of experience versus one year, 20 times.” If candidates have a great deal of experience, the lack of a point system should not be detrimental. For success in an assessment system that offers little or no credit for experience, a firefighter must use his experience to his benefit and be prepared to demonstrate the credibility of that experience. Just telling the assessors that you have vast experience will not cut it. It is critical that your experience is evident to the evaluators without even so much as a mention.
“I have more skills and abilities than those getting promoted.” Remember, fire departments are looking for the right firefighters to be their officers. During assessment centers, it is common to hear firefighters proclaim that they are the best firefighters. Statements that assert a firefighter is the best at venting a roof, deploying a hoseline, throwing ladders, and other firefighting skills indicate the person’s ability to perform a task. Consider the message left with the assessment panel, “I am the best firefighter!” Assessment panels are not looking to promote the “best firefighter”; they may even be inclined to believe that the firefighter position may be the best place for such candidates instead of that of the company officer.
It is the candidate’s responsibility to demonstrate that he is the “right” or “best” person for the position. No one in the assessment center is speaking on your behalf; it is essential that you develop your presentation skills so that your appearance before the panel doesn’t result in a “deer in the headlights” performance.
Although preparation for fire service leadership positions begins even before entry into the profession, it is never too late to start. If there is an officer development program in your area, enroll now! If not, find classes on communications, leadership, fire tactics, management, and any closely related subject. Exposure to a learning environment and critical thinking will help develop your skills. Ask yourself, “What have I done to prepare for the position of company officer?”
The International Association of Fire Chief’s Officer Development Handbook, available at the organization’s Web site,2 discusses leadership, motivation, mentoring, and mapping for the development of company officers and beyond. No, it does not contain the answers to all the assessment questions. But it does list recommended classes and activities for developing skills for leadership positions.
“They want book smarts, not street smarts.” Unsuccessful candidates often make the above statement. Fire departments are looking for street smarts, but if a candidate wants to demonstrate those skills, he must be able to communicate them. Communication, written or spoken, is critical. Writing is tough, but practice is the most effective way to hone writing skills. Find a writing mentor in the firehouse, or enlist the help of a family member, a friend, or a teacher. It is 2006: we require our fire officers to understand the basics of writing.
Firefighters crawl on their bellies in total darkness in heat and smoke and ascend ladders more than 100 feet in the air; yet they turn pale when asked to make a public presentation. Most humans would fear the tasks firefighters perform every day. However, if you really want to strike fear in the hearts of firefighters, tell them they must give a public presentation; write a paper; or, even worse, complete a project on a computer.
To allay some of these fears, you can check out Toastmasters International, an organization that has helped millions develop, improve, and maintain their speaking and presentation skills.3 These skills are essential for the job, not just the assessment center. Getting help to improve your ability to present your ideas in a formal setting, whether through this organization or some other means, will also improve your ability to interview, define specific leadership traits, and perfect other verbal skills. Locate a club near you, then start going, regardless of your speaking ability.
“But I have great firefighting skills.” We need great firefighters to carry out the firefighting tasks company officers assign, but a great saw or extrication tool operator does not necessarily make a great company officer. Fire service management requires critical thought and actions at the tactical level, on the fireground, and in managerial situations. Make no mistake, proficiency in task skills is crucial for the company officer. The new captain or lieutenant, as well as the veteran, is responsible for training the crew and maintaining their skills. Task-level skills are crucial; however, they are not the skills sought for promotion.
The company officer operates at the tactical level, so include tactical-level fire operations training in your preparation for the job. Likewise, include tactical time management and tactical personnel applications in your prep. The right fire officer is able to handle himself on the fireground as well as in the firehouse.
A computer-based fire simulator is one of the best ways to prepare for tactical operations. Many fire simulators are available commercially, or perhaps your department has a system for checking out a copy of a fire simulator. Simulator software is available on the Internet or through other commercial outlets.
Simulations are still available without all the electronic gizmos. Check out any of the incident photos in fire service magazines, and voila, instant incident scene simulation. The various fires, extrications, and other emergency calls shown offer excellent examples for on-scene reports, strategic and tactical considerations, and other company officer decisions. Whatever simulation method you chose, the important thing to remember is practice, practice, practice.
“I’ve been to all of these classes and seminars.” Demonstrate what you’ve learned. Education compares with experience. You can have a Ph.D. in “company officer” yet be unable to demonstrate what you’ve learned effectively. The assessment participant must demonstrate readiness for the company officer position. Once you enter the process, every word, phrase, action, and movement will be evaluated, intentionally or unintentionally, by the assessors. Experience, education, and poise are elements that will naturally emerge if you are truly prepared for leadership. You can tell the assessors that you have these qualities until you are blue in the face and they are bored to tears. However, demonstrating these qualities will maintain your color and engage the assessors in your actions.
Don’t give up on the classes. Seek as many educational opportunities as possible. Don’t limit your opportunities to the fire service. Leadership and management training outside the fire service may open your eyes to factors you would otherwise have missed. Just participating in the educational process at any level will improve your abilities as a leader and manager.
“I deserve to be promoted.” This is probably the biggest pitfall of all attitudes that interferes with potential company officers’ showing their true abilities. The attitude of entitlement is guaranteed to rear its ugly head during an assessment process. Don’t let this happen to you! Most departments provide the things you deserve: proper safety equipment and PPE, adequate equipment to accomplish your job, some form of compensation and benefits, and other essentials common to the profession. It is your responsibility to show the assessors that you intend to earn the position. You owe that to yourself.
PREPARATION AND COACHING
There are scores of Web sites, books, and videos on interviews; use them. Nevertheless, understand there is not a single “right” answer to each interview question. Different assessors have different concepts of what the “right” answer to an interview question is. However, you can prepare yourself for the performance aspects of the assessment process.
Prepare yourself to be comfortable in these pressure situations. Find an interview or presentation coach. Contact your employee assistance program and see if help for promotional interviews is offered. Peruse the multitudes of Web sites that offer assistance. There are even Web sites that offer interview help specifically for firefighters.
Face it: You know if you are proficient at interviewing and other oral communications. Identify what you need to do, and practice. When seeking a coach, consider asking someone who will be critical. Picking a friend who will not provide direct and critical feedback is counterproductive. Consider asking that person you do not get along with so well. Create the nervousness you will experience. Practice with questions not related to the fire service. This will enhance your listening skills so you can accurately answer the questions. There is nothing more frustrating for an assessor than to have a candidate convey an answer that doesn’t match the question asked.
Practice remaining calm, confident, competent, analytical, professional, and polite. You will be nervous, as pointed out earlier; speaking in front of people still ranks as the number-one fear of humans; don’t get hung up on your nervousness.
Your actions, poise, and vernacular reflect your preparation for the position at a level equal to your answers. You may “nail” an answer in concept but fail to impress the interviewers because your body language failed to support your ideas. Present yourself as a professional with confidence, not cockiness. Interact with your interviewers by asking questions pertinent to the interview and the position. The vernacular (not vocabulary) you use will say a lot about your preparation for the job. You do not need to know big eight-dollar words, but you should be able to follow the basic principles of grammar you learned in elementary school. Remember, the assessors are selecting fire department managers they expect will be able to hold literate and grammatically appropriate conversations.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Each time you pull into your driveway, visualize your house burning down … again … and again … and again. You cannot practice your on-scene reports too often. Practice verbalizing your tactical considerations as well as your actions on these self-applied simulations. Practice whenever you have the chance. It is critical to practice with a fellow candidate or a coach who will provide feedback regarding your performance.
Force yourself to write, write, write, and write some more. I haven’t found a fire department yet that doesn’t have the infernal grammar cop. Everyone knows this firehouse intellectual who returns your e-mails with grammatical corrections. Use this individual to your advantage. If your department doesn’t have such a grammar “expert,” seek help at a local community college or high school. Performing writing exercises followed by a critical review helps develop language skills, comprehension skills, and that vernacular thing discussed earlier. Besides, you can bet there will be some form of writing exercise during the assessment process.
Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge, it is time to put away the novels and read some of the many fire service management books written specifically for company officers. Challenge yourself: Read management and leadership books written for both inside and outside the fire service.
GETTING IT TOGETHER
You alone will determine your success in an assessment center. Preparation and practice are crucial; without them, you are guaranteed to watch the world go by backward (from the jump seat), which is not so bad. Find a mentor, mentor a peer, practice, and study with a partner enrolled in the same process-in short, prepare to be the right candidate for the position.
As already said, test for the position, not the test. Far too many potential officers fail because they approach the promotional assessment center as if preparing for a class final. Prepare as if you are stepping into the role of company officer as you step into the process. Then, when you are selected from that long list of names, social security numbers, or other secret identifier code, you will be ready for your new job.
1. Guggenheim, Eric; Gavin O’Connor (director). Miracle [Motion picture]. (United States: Buena Vista Pictures, 2004).
2. International Association of Fire Chiefs, Officer Development Handbook (2003), www.iafc.org/associations/4685/files/OffrsHdbkFINAL3.pdf.
3. Toastmasters International. Web site: www.toastmasters.org.
TOM DeMINT is a battalion chief with the Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, Colorado. Involved in the emergency services for 29 years, he has served as an EMT, a paramedic, a firefighter, a captain, an assistant fire marshal, a planner, a training chief, and an assessment center evaluator. DeMint is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) North Central Regional Code Development Committee, the Fire Marshals Association of Colorado, and the International Association Fire Chiefs (IAFC). DeMint is a member of the development group for the fire service video training program “To Hell and Back.”