10 Steps to Promotion

By Steve Prziborowski

Getting promoted in the fire service is not an easy task. Regardless of the position you are competing for, you must have a plan of action to get that badge you so highly covet. Although the competition is usually not as fierce for promotional positions as it was for taking the initial entry-level firefighter examination, it is still critical that you have a plan of action and not sit back and wait for the badge to come to you. The higher you promote, the fewer candidates you will usually have to compete against. However, those fewer candidates will usually provide you with more competition than you had ever imagined or prepared for.

Here are 10 ways to increase your chances of getting promoted in the fire service.

Formally educate yourself.

Many departments require promotional candidates to have formal education such as an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree. It is not uncommon for an associate’s degree to be required for a lieutenant or captain position, a bachelor’s degree for a battalion chief or division chief position, and a master’s degree for an assistant chief or chief position. Even if your department doesn’t presently require that level (or any level) of education, don’t think it will never be required. Obtain that education NOW so that you will have it to qualify for the exam or to stand out among the candidates.

Even if a department does not specifically state that it requires certain educational achievements to take a promotional exam, many times those degrees are listed as highly desirable on the promotional announcement. If nothing else, many of your peers competing with you most likely will have some (if not all) of the abovementioned degrees. You can either stick out of the crowd by not being formally educated, or you can compete with the others equally and maybe even stand apart from them, depending on your level of education.

Don’t wait until the last minute to start your advanced education. I have seen too many fire service professionals over the years do this. How easy is it going to be when you are in your 40s or 50s (married, with kids, maybe with grandchildren, plenty of hobbies to keep you busy) trying to go back to school and sit through at least two years of classes, do homework, and write research papers? Not that easy, I would say. At that point in your life, you will have been out of school for more than 20 years; going back to school is going to require much concentration and dedication. If only you had educated yourself years ago, you’ll say.

Many firefighters with fewer than 20 years on the job think they never want to go higher than firefighter, engineer, or captain. There is nothing wrong with that; the fire service needs great people in all ranks. However, many people have a change of heart later in their career and want to promote for various reasons (more money in retirement, planning for a second career after retirement). If you had educated yourself early in your career, you would have set yourself up perfectly for that promotional exam. Even if you never promote or never have to use your formal education to obtain a particular position within the fire service, it doesn’t mean that it was a waste getting it in the first place. I like to think of it the other way: I would rather have something I never use (even though in reality all ranks can use their education) than wish I had something I do not have.

Keep your knowledge and skills up-to-date.

If you are not already subscribing to fire service trade publications such as Fire Engineering, what are you waiting for? They will assist you in thinking globally as well as open you up to ideas, concepts, and practices used outside your department. You can learn a lot by seeing how other fire departments are doing business. Just because your department does things one way doesn’t mean that you can’t learn other ways. To me, being progressive and keeping your knowledge up-to-date mean always looking at how other departments are doing things and taking something from each one to make your department the best it can be.

Also, start using the Internet to do some research on fire-related topics. Countless Internet sites (such as www.FireEngineering.com) can provide you with knowledge for continuing education purposes. Don’t just limit yourself to fire service-related classes when preparing for promotional examinations. There are countless nonfire service-related seminars, classes, and books that can be of benefit. You can learn a great deal about leadership and management from folks who have succeeded in the business world.

Have you ever heard the saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”? That is very true to life. We need to continuously keep our skills up-to-date at every rank to keep up with the rapidly changing world in which we work. If you are not attending at least one fire-related seminar a year or taking at least one fire-related certification course a year (above and beyond your normal job expectations), you are probably not doing as much as you can to keep your skills up-to-date.

Many people attempt to take promotional examinations later in their careers, after they have remained in the same spot for a while. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem exists when they have not kept their skills up-to-date and then expect them to just miraculously reappear during the promotional process. If you don’t use it, you lose it!

Get involved in the community.

Many departments expect their firefighters to get involved in some capacity with the community they protect. It is especially important the higher up you promote. The firefighters and captains on the engine and ladder trucks have the opportunity to make the biggest impact since they are out in the field every day. However, it is the higher-ranking chief officers who find themselves representing (and sometimes defending) the department at city council meetings, budget meetings, and other community-related events. These situations have the potential to make or break the department’s ability to increase its budget and its level of service delivery to the public in the form of increased staffing, apparatus, programs, and so on.

The more of a vested interest you have in the community you serve, the better your department might fare. Why? Many community leaders have an appreciation for individuals (such as those from the fire department) who actually participate in their community (not just on-duty) and attempt to make it a better place as opposed to those who just work in a community, collect a paycheck, and then drive to their home an hour or more away.

Now I’m not going to get into the residency issue. Just realize that when you are at a city council meeting trying to fight for more staffing (or just to keep your staffing and not close fire stations), the minute the council members find out you don’t even live in the community, they might be less sympathetic to your cause.

Opportunities for community involvement include joining the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, and the Lion’s Club; coaching school sports; and volunteering at your local schools and in the community. Be creative about what type of community involvement works best for you.

Get involved with your department.

Virtually every fire department has numerous opportunities for involvement: Take lateral assignments (such as a shift firefighter or captain accepting an assignment in fire prevention or training), join (and participate in) committees, become a member of your union’s local executive board, take on assignments above and beyond your normal duties (such as teaching off-duty classes in CPR or acting as the department on-call fire investigator), or develop new procedures or programs to make the department better.

Instead of complaining about how or why something is done, try and change that procedure for the better. It will mean you probably have to get promoted (so that you can have more influence or control over what you complained about) and more involved in the department.

Talk with people already in the position you are aspiring to.

What better way is there to find out more about the position you are aspiring to than to talk with individuals who already hold that position? They have already passed the promotional exam and obviously did something right to get into their position. Talk to people not just in your department but in other departments as well. Ask them what classes you should take to better prepare yourself, what you should do to prepare yourself for the exam, what the pros and cons of the position are, and so on.

Most firefighters in all ranks are always willing to share information and provide you with suggestions on preparing yourself for the position. You don’t have to agree with everything you are told, but you should still respect all opinions and suggestions. If you can learn one new thing from each person, that is worth your time and effort.

Learn as much as you can about your department.

You’d be amazed at how many promotional candidates don’t take the time to completely educate themselves about the entire workings of their fire department. When you tested to become a firefighter, I’m assuming you did basic research on the department (number of stations, apparatus, staffing levels). Well, the higher the level you aspire to, the more in depth you need to research. Understand how to develop and manage a program and its related budget, as well as the history of why things are done (or not done) a certain way. Such information can be very critical to your success in the chief officer ranks.

Keep out of trouble.

Some promotional candidates do not come out as high as they want on the promotional eligibility list and then proceed to blame everybody except themselves for their poor score. I realize the testing process is supposed to be objective (vs. subjective). Even if you come out number one on the list, you should not always expect a guaranteed promotion.

Yes, it is true that many quality candidates get passed over when it comes time for promotions in many departments. It is also true that some candidates get passed over to meet a diversity requirement. Still others get passed over because of their long history of trouble (or misfortune, however you want to look at it) with the administration. Some of those candidates might think that is unfair and that they shouldn’t be judged on their past actions.

Think of it this way: The chief is trying to build his “dream team” when it comes to promotional positions in the department. If you have had a history of problems with the chief, instances of not being a team player or just instances of not following the rules and regulations, would you want to have someone like yourself on your dream team? The chief wants people he can trust to manage the various operations of the department the way he feels they should be managed.

Understand as much as you can about the promotional process for the position you are aspiring to.

Some people go blindly into a promotional process without having done any preparation or research on what they are getting into. How do you expect to do well in the process if you don’t know how you are going to get tested or how to best prepare yourself? Talk to others who have taken the previous tests to find out how to best prepare yourself as well as what to expect on the exam. Don’t expect the exact answers; the goal is not to spoon-feed you the information. The goal is to find out the general areas you should focus on so that you can prepare. Since time is usually critical for all of us, the more you can focus on what the most important areas are, the better off you will be.

Know your strengths and your weaknesses.

If you know your strengths, you should be able to capitalize on them throughout the promotional process. Take advantage of them, and be willing to actually use them and share them with the proctors who are evaluating you.

As for your weaknesses, realizing what they are is half the battle. Like it or not, we all have weaknesses. The key is to recognize what they are and start to improve on them. The promotional process is geared toward finding out what each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses are. Knowing them well in advance can help you improve your scores. Also, it is not uncommon to hear this type of question during a promotional oral interview.

Make sure your dress uniform still fits you!

Do not wait until the morning of the promotional examination to find out that your dress uniform (which many departments require you to wear during the promotional process) doesn’t fit you anymore, that your shirt is wrinkled or dirty, or that your shoes need to be polished. Even if you can fix these problems, you will probably be a nervous wreck because of the stress you had to go through to do so. Take the time to inspect (and wipe the dust and cobwebs off) that dress uniform a couple of months before your testing dates. Also, if there is the chance there will be back-to-back days in the testing process, ensure that you have enough dress shirts so you don’t have to go searching for a one-hour dry cleaners.

Although there are no guarantees that you will get promoted in the fire service, the more you can do to prepare yourself to be a strong competitor, the better your chances of getting the badge you desire! If you want the promotion enough, you will work at it. Why waste your time going through the promotional process if you are not going to be the best you can be? Set yourself up for success long in advance of the promotional examination, and your odds of getting that badge will greatly increase.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a captain with the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department and has been in the fire service for 12 years. He is also the fire technology coordinator at Chabot College in Hayward (CA), where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS courses for 10 years. He is a state certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, hazardous materials technician, and 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.

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