Lisa Baker: The Assessment Center Process: How to Be Successful

By Lisa Baker

Many organizations in the fire service use an assessment center as part of their promotional process. What exactly is an assessment center, and why do agencies use them?  

An assessment center basically assesses your ability to be successful in the job classification for which you are testing. Candidates face situations they would possibly face in the day-to-day activities of a lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, or higher ranks.

These centers have been determined to be fair and valid. The tests they administer are standardized—all candidates are given the same tests and questions.

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At the core of the testing protocol is a job analysis, which helps to ensure that the candidates are tested on information the agency considers relevant and important for the rank. Incumbents in the rank are asked what information they consider important for success in the position—for example, what does a lieutenant need to know on the first day in the position?

Candidates who are knowledgeable about their agency’s policy and procedures, rules and regulations, standard operating procedures, and memoranda of understanding should be successful in the testing process. Other areas with which they should be familiar include the following: the major issues facing their agency and the emerging trends and leading issues in the fire service. Expertise in these areas will not only prepare candidates for the test but also help them prepare for the new job and enhance their performance in their current rank.

Being able to articulate in an easy-to-understand, logical manner information that is relevant to the issue will show that the candidate has a grasp of the test material. The more relevant the information, the higher the test score will be.  

Typical exercises are emergency simulations that can range from a single-family dwelling to a high-rise to a wildland fire if your agency responds to wildland fires. You may have a multiple-casualty incident, a vehicle accident, or a hazardous-material incident. You may have more than one emergency simulation on the test. Knowing what your agency’s method of handling each type of emergency is important: Are there certain policies and procedures that must be followed? For example, at a single-family dwelling fire, is the first engine required to obtain its own water supply? If so, then follow this procedure in the assessment center. Give as much information as possible in your responses. Listen to the instructions and the amount of time allotted for each response. If the question is, “What are your prearrival considerations?  be prepared with a standardized response (WALLACE WAS HOT). If the question is, “You have two minutes to give your on-scene report,” then, begin with your arrival on scene.

A role-play, employee counseling scenario is another typical exercise. Again, knowing your agency’s policies and procedures will help you be successful.  Are there personnel issues within your agency? If so, know what they are; why they are occurring; and what you, as a supervisor, are expected to do about them.

More and more assessment centers now have a written component. If you know writing is a weak point for you, start preparing now. The written exercise seems to be the weak link in our industry.

You may encounter an in-basket exercise. This scenario basically is what you as a supervisor may find on your first day on the job–staffing issues, personnel issues, broken equipment, citizen complaints.  How do you handle these issues? Always keep your direct supervisor in the loop, and never operate outside of your rank. If in your agency, you cannot send a battalion chief home, then don’t do this in an assessment center. This is the administrative part of the job being tested!

So how do you prepare? Know what is occurring in your agency and the fire service in general, and become familiar with emerging trends in the fire service. Know your policies and procedures, rules and regulations, SOPs, MOUs. Talk to and observe members in your agency who are in the rank for which you are testing. Listen on the radio to fires and other emergencies in your agency so you are familiar with size-ups, on-scene reports, requesting additional information, and so on. Do not prepare for just the test; prepare for the job. Practice and prepare.


Lisa Baker is a battalion chief/special operations/safety officer. She is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and has been a battalion chief for the past nine years. She was an assessor on more than 50 assessment centers throughout the United States for the ranks of lieutenant, captain, and battalion chief. She is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer program and Chief Officer Certified. She has a master’s degree in executive leadership, a bachelor’s degree in applied studies, and an associate degree in fire science. 

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