Stepping Up. The Grocery Store

by Ron Hiraki

A frequent assessment center role play that I am asked to prepare starts with the candidate in a grocery store, on duty, with the fire apparatus parked outside. A community member approaches the candidate and asks pointed questions about firefighters, firefighting, and the fire department.

For the assessment center, we are evaluating the candidate’s ability to “think on his/her feet” and answer the questions intelligently. A more challenging scenario calls for the candidate to explain a specific issue, practice, regulation, or policy. In addition to thinking quickly and speaking intelligently, the candidate must know the details of the issue, practice, regulation, or policy and must be able to explain it to the community member, a layperson. This may seem like a situation for fire officers, but a community member could approach anyone wearing a uniform or driving a fire department apparatus or vehicle. You can step up by preparing yourself for a real or simulated conversation with one of your customers, a community member.

When community members approach you, do not be defensive. If they have a complaint, they will go to the fire chief or to headquarters. Frequently, community members who have a genuine curiosity about a fire service issue often like to hear from “real” firefighters in the field. Besides, it’s easier to approach the firefighter they see in public than to go to the fire station or write an e-mail or letter. You are the best spokesperson for your fire department. Think of common issues that a community member might raise. It is critical that you consider what the community member will take away from your conversation. That “take-away” must contain three things: (1) factual information or a message; (2) a good, preferably great, impression of you as a firefighter and of your fire department; and (3) a resource for additional information or an offer to call you if the person has further questions.

Common Issues  

  • Why do you get to go grocery shopping on duty, on the taxpayers’ time? Are you available for a call? Who pays for the groceries? Who cooks?
  • Do you get to sleep and watch TV on duty?
  • I saw the firefighters playing basketball at the station. I wish I got paid for doing that.
  • What’s the best kind of smoke alarm or fire extinguisher for me to buy?
  • Do you teach CPR, first aid, or disaster preparedness classes at the fire station?
  • I watched a house fire in my neighborhood. There were two firefighters just standing in the front yard doing nothing (two-in/two-out). Why?
  • My uncle had a heart attack, and the fire department took him to the hospital for free. My aunt had stomach pains and the fire department called an ambulance that charged my family a fee for the ride.

Can you think of other common issues? Can you respond to a community member’s question or comments and deliver the three parts of the “take-away?”

Community members will ask you about current issues. What are these current issues for your fire department? Read the local newspapers for articles that have referred to your fire department within the past six months or year. In addition to fires and rescues, have there been articles about the fire department’s budget, pay raises for firefighters, grants, special training, new fire stations, apparatus, or equipment? Spending time at the fire station with the newspaper, radio, and television news programs keeps you abreast of what community members are reading, hearing, and seeing. This can be especially important for firefighters who do not live in the community where they work.

When was the last time you looked at your fire department’s Web site? Most fire departments have an internal Web site for members and a public Web site for community members. Take the time to look at your public Web site on a regular basis. This is what many community members see. They may ask about information found on this site.

Does your fire department have a pamphlet and brochure rack in the lobbies of fire stations? Make sure you are familiar with each item in stock.

Talk to your fire department’s receptionist, fire code inspector, and public education specialist. These members deal with community members on a daily basis. Ask them about the issues and questions that they receive and how they respond. These members are valuable, but frequently overlooked, resources.

Step up and take a little “ownership” in your department.


Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He has a master of science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs. 






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