New Trends in Fire Promotion Examinations

New Trends in Fire Promotion Examinations

A FIRE FIGHTER, recently promoted to the grade of captain in the fire department of one of our larger cities, was telling of his reactions to the written civil service test he had taken. Those tests are getting more difficult every time they are given, he pointed out, and many of the questions are nothing more than an ordeal of terror, leading to the creation of civil service “experts” whose knowledge of fire fighting is nil. “In order to be an efficient fire officer these days,” he commented, “it is not enough to have a superior knowledge of fire fighting. One of the best fire fighters in the department failed that test,” he continued, “simply because when it came to questions of public relations, personnel administration, discipline and other matters not covered specifically by rules and regulations, he could not give the psychologically accepted answers approved by the non-fire fighting experts. To be really successful on a promotion test,” he concluded, “a man needs a doctor’s degree in psychology and sociology.” Obviously, the captain was exaggerating, but since he had just about made the promotion list, it could be assumed that his low grade was attributable primarily to the questions of the “nonfire fighting experts,” as he called them.

* Honorary Battalion Chief, FDNY; Training Consultant and Educational Advisor, Fire College, City of New York.

The comments of the captain should not be dismissed or taken lightly since his complaint is not a unique one. Many officers will agree with him whole-heartedly. The truth is that questions on civil service promotion examinations for all grades in the fire service are getting more and more difficult. This applies equally to technical and nontechnical questions. Moreover, the captain is partially correct in describing the complexity of certain nontechnical questions which demand knowledge and judgment beyond the “book.”

Certainly the ability to answer these questions correctly does not require anything near the professional training of the psychologist or sociologist. As in the case of most gripes about examinations, the captain, like many others who prefer to consider themselves “oldtimers,” is reluctant to admit the development of new trends.

His reluctance to accept the new types of questions and to prepare himself to cope with them successfully may mean that he has reached the highest grade of his career in the department.

This is most unfortunate because the emphasis upon examining a candidate’s ability in situations not specifically covered by rules and regulations is here to stay. The fact is that on each succeeding promotion test over the past few years, more and more of these questions have appeared. Their elimination in the future, therefore, is most unlikely.

A case in point

The written promotion examination to deputy chief of the New York Fire Department illustrates the trend. Prior to 1953, the exam consisted of problems relating to fire fighting and fire administration, the traditional areas in which the fire fighting command ability and judgment of one of the highest grades in the department were tested. In the fire fighting problems the candidate was presented complicated situations which forced him to explain in detail how he would coordinate manpower, equipment and facilities to meet the exigencies of the particular fire situation involved. In administration the questions were geared to test the officer in the “desk” aspects of his job and these problems were very comprehensive.

In fact, all of the questions posed in the previous examinations were extremely difficult and only the most competent officers survived the test. Every answer on fire fighting and fire administration problems required essays or outlines and the candidate was judged essentially on the sequence, quality and number of actions he described as necessary to meet the problems involved. However, a drastic change has now been made in the format and questions of this type of examination.

Commencing with the examination of 1953, the test for promotion to deputy chief is divided into two parts: Part J consists of 100 multiple-choice questions, the possible answers to which were designated by letter choices A, B, C, D or E. These 100 multiple-choice questions concern both technical and nontechnical problems.

In the nontechnical questions, most of the choices are based on principles of management and supervision which are implied but not specified by the department rules and regulations. As in the case of every multiple-choice question, only one of these letter choices is correct and the shades of difference among the four or five possible answers are very slight. Each word of every statement has to be scrutinized and evaluated most carefully.

It is this portion of the test, Part 1, and this type, the nontechnical question, which the captain felt required the additional knowledge of a psychologist or a sociologist. Many candidates upon a first reading of the four or five possible answers feel in many instances two or three answers have equal value. On the other hand, for the multiple-choice questions in Part 1 involving factual information relating to chemistry, physics or fire fighting standards, the candidate faces no such dilemma in arriving at the correct letter choice. Naturally, these technical questions are preferred by the men.

However, this is only part of the problem facing the candidates. The essay-type questions on fire fighting and fire administration previously described, are now contained in a separate Part 2 of the examination, but unless the candidate receives a passing grade on Part 1, Part 2 is not scored or graded. It is obvious that unless a man is successful in answering correctly a certain minimum number of the multiple-choice questions, he cannot pass the test. It is evident that the candidate who is strong on essay answers and weak on multiple-choice has a remote chance of success. Under these circumstances, failure on Part 1 means failure in the entire examination. Promotion tests for deputy chief of department from 1953 to the present have continued to follow this pattern.

The use of multiple-choice questions for promotion to grades beyond captain is relatively recent; however, this type of question has been used for many years for promotion to lieutenant and captain. These tests are limited to 100 multiple-choice questions and no essay questions are included. The promotion test to battalion chief now follows the same pattern as that for deputy chief.

What is significant about all civil service promotion tests throughout the country, however, is the increasing number of nontechnical questions appearing on the examinations. Since these particular questions present unique problems, all candidates for promotion in the fire service are concerned with the trend. This concern has expressed itself in the strong objections of candidates to various aspects of the new type of questions.

Objections to the questions

The strongest objections have come from men like the captain whose entire examination, unlike the test for deputy chief, consisted of 100 multiple-choice questions. These objections are not against the use of multiplechoice questions as such, but rather against certain types of questions which are not related directly to fire fighting problems. These now comprise about 20 to 25 per cent of the multiple-choice examination.

As indicated previously, experience has shown that most men competing for promotions do very well on the multiple-choice questions which involve hydraulics, chemistry, physics, fire fighting techniques and knowledge of rules and regulations of the department. In many instances the candidate can prove his answer mathematically, thus eliminating any possible guesswork. But when multiple-choice questions are presented which involve situations in human relations, the possible conflict of authority between subordinate officers, relations with the public and other areas not spelled out in the rules and regulations of the department, the vast majority of candidates run into trouble. The answers selected by the men may not agree with the civil service “key” or correct answer. It is not a case of the men being right and the examiners wrong. The truth is that the key answers invariably are correct and are based upon very valid principles of management and supervision. Unfortunately, these principles have not been part of the officer’s experience or training or have not received the same emphasis as the technical aspects of the job.

Other officers complain that the clue to the correct answer often hinges upon the meaning and interpretation given to a single word in a statement. As a result, an undue amount of time is required for study and analysis of each possible answer. This procedure can be fatal in an examination containing 100 multiple-choice questions on a large variety of subjects which have to be completed within a rigidly fixed time limit. However, it has been the general unfamiliarity of the subjects presented in the nontechnical multiple-choice questions which pose the greatest single obstacle; many men have been frank to admit that some of their answers amounted to an “educated guess.”

In promotion examinations for higher grades it is the consensus of most of the candidates that too much emphasis has been placed upon the value of multiple-choice questions in Part 1 to the exclusion of any grading whatsoever of problems requiring detailed answers in Part 2, and that this is unfair. In other words, it is contended that passing Part 1 should not be a condition for the reading, evaluation and scoring of Part 2. The entire test, both multiple-choice and essay questions, measure a man’s ability, it is held, and both parts therefore should be scored.

Why these questions?

Two questions concerning promotion examinations that have been asked most frequently by fire officers throughout the country are; (1) What are these multiple-choice nontechnical questions attempting to test? and (2) if these subjects are important to the efficient performance of the job, why are they not included in the rules and regulations of the department? Both questions can be answered in detail, .but I shall only touch on them briefly for purposes of this article. With reference to the first: Multiple-choice nontechnical questions attempt to measure or evaluate the initiative, judgment and leadership of officer personnel, particularly in matters involving their relationships and attitudes to superiors, subordinates, associates of equal rank, personnel of other departments and the public.

Essentially, they recognize the fact that as a man advances in rank, his ability to handle men, his personal attitudes towards the job, his competency in matters of discipline, his working relations with other departments and his contacts with the public are just as important for ultimate efficiency of the department as his technical knowledge and skill. This is quite true. It would not be an exaggeration to say that as an officer advances in grade and responsibility, and the number of intermediaries between him and the actual execution of a task increases arithmetically, his ability and skill as an executive and a leader must increase geometrically.

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To attempt to measure or judge this increasing capacity as an officer advances in grade and responsibility is not an easy task, but this is exactly what the promotional examinations are attempting to do. The multiplechoice nontechnical questions are the means employed by the examiners to judge this capacity. The effort being made on promotion examinations is worthwhile and should result in an increasingly better selection of more capable leaders in the fire service.

As for the second, the answer is that no set of rules and regulations, no matter how complete, can cover all the subjects involved; even the attempt to do so involves an almost impossible task. The important point to be considered is whether the rules and regulations should cover these subjects if such were possible. The answer is most emphatically, No! Leadership under such a system would become impossible and the officer would be stripped of all the personal contributions that he as an individual can make to bis job and to his department. It is this personal, intimate and daily association of the officer and his men, guided by intelligent rules and regulations, that makes teamwork possible and assures a high degree of morale for all concerned.

What to do about it

Since there is every indication that more and more of these mutiplechoice questions will appear on all future promotion examinations, the problem is what can the man who aspires to higher grades in the fire service do about it? Instead of resisting the trend or griping about it, the intelligent man shoud take the proper steps immediately to prepare himself more adequately to answer these questions. When 20 per cent of any test consists of questions which cannot be answered by reference to rules and regulations, and this 20 per cent may make the difference between passing and failure, the intelligent course of action is to seek the education and training that will overcome that gap, whether the department sponsors such training or not. This is not an easy task, for it is very doubtful that the average candidate can prepare himself adequately without professional or technical guidance.

In many cities, such as New York, the department has such a training course in progress. Unfortunately, this is not true throughout the country, if the author can accept as reliable the numerous letters received from fire officers requesting more concrete information on books, courses or any other published materials on these subjects. In New York City, the Fire College Library lias prosed to be a tremendous asset in furnishing promotion candidates with pertinent literature. This means that the man who desires to do well on promotion examinations must go more and more into subject areas beyond the rules and regulations.

The book expert

During World War II, it was my privilege to serve as an assistant to a man who, in my opinion, was one of the finest officers and leaders in the service. The only officers who disliked him were the men that he liked to call “book experts.” A “book expert,” by his definition, was an officer who explained all his actions by constant referral to the rules and regulations. This kind of officer, he felt, implied by such constant referral that the responsibility for his actions rested in the regulations exclusively and not in his own individual judgment. It was this attitude that annoyed him. Apparently he realized and respected the importance of regulations as he constantly asked his subordinates would they recommend or take the same action if the regulation did not exist.

One day I asked him if he was “against” the regulations. His answer was swift and to the point. “Of course, I’m not against regulations. Good regulations are absolutely necessary for order and efficiency,” be said, “but regulations can be wrong, can become outdated, can fail to meet changing conditions. An officer must be more than a book expert,” he continued, “and his ability to make correct decisions, particularly where the book is silent, is just as important as his knowledge of what other thinking officers have put into print. A good officer is a book expert,” he concluded, “but that’s not enough; his real leadership must also be tested by his personal contributions to the job, his initiative and his judgment.”

It seems to me that the multiplechoice nontechnical questions are attempting to get at this kind of ability. The fact that too many officers do not do too well on this phase of the examination does not mean that these questions should be eliminated. However, it may well be one indication of the need for a broader and more executive type of training for higher grade officers in the fire service throughout the country.

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