BY DAVID “CHIP” COMSTOCK JR.
Young boys and girls often dream of becoming firefighters. Many of us fulfilled that dream when we joined the volunteer ranks. How many young (and a few older) firefighters dream of that next step of becoming a fire officer? Will that dream of promotion become a reality, or will it remain elusive, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
In today’s volunteer fire service, firefighter promotion to company officer occurs in several different ways: by popular vote (one of the oldest methods); selection by the fire chief or a group of chief officers (a far less democratic method); or written or oral examination (rare in the volunteer fire service). Occasionally, a department will use an assessment center to determine the officer candidate’s competency. Each method has pros and cons, and no single method guarantees that the candidate selected will be a successful company officer.
A potential problem with each method is that the firefighter who wants to become an officer may not have any idea of what his department’s promotional system is and how it works. Fire department executives owe it to the next generation of leaders to provide clear guidance on the promotional process.
First, the department must decide what minimum qualifications an officer must have. Generally, there is an experience component requiring a certain number of years of service; most entry-level officers’ positions, such as lieutenant, require two to five years “on the job.” But, keep in mind that such positions should not require the candidate to know everything; the candidate should be willing and able to learn on the job.
Departments should also outline the minimum training or educational requirements the officer candidate should possess. Most fire departments require not only Firefighter II certification but also some executive officer schooling as well. Classes in tactics, rapid intervention, emergency vehicle operations, and incident command may be part of the minimum requirements for the position. Depending on the department’s type of operation, EMT-A or higher qualification for EMS operations may also be required.
If your department has other intermediate ranks such as engineer, captain, or major, additional qualifications should be added. As the officer is promoted and gains more experience, he must also continue his education and training to remain on the promotional path. National Fire Protection Association 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, is a road map for determining minimal qualifications for each level of officer.
INITIAL CANDIDATES TO THE PROCESS
Once the minimum qualifications are established, this information should be disseminated to the troops. These standards can also become part of the department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) or rules and regulations. These standards should remain posted throughout the department and available for review. There must be a clear understanding of who is and is not eligible for promotion. Although there may be some complaints alleging that the qualifications selected are not “fair” or are too lenient, remember that the standards only set minimum qualifications and provide most members the opportunity to become eligible over time, if they are willing to work.
After setting the minimum qualification standards, the department must then address the specific selection procedure for new company officer. Start by notifying the members that an opening has occurred or will occur by officially posting the open position, again listing the established qualifications. The posting should invite letters of interest and resumes. An interested firefighter will need to organize his experience, training, and education succinctly into a one- or two-page document, which forces the potential candidate to evaluate what he has accomplished in his fire service career.
Once all of the hopeful candidates have submitted their resumes to the chief (or other designated person) according to the submission procedure posted, the candidate selection process can begin. This part of the process requires the most care and the most work. Over time, my department has developed a hybrid selection process that should work well in any volunteer fire department.
First, the chief or chief officers appoint an internal selection committee. For the lieutenant’s position, this consists of two chief officers, a captain, and two lieutenants. However, it may combine any mix of rank, including one or more firefighters. The purpose is to obtain a wide variety of perspectives, to avoid the objection that a specific or affiliated clique or group is making the promotional decision. A special note here: Close friends or relatives of candidates should never serve on the selection committee. Often when officers’ sons or daughters seek a promotion, the parent is excluded from the process entirely.
In addition to the internal selection committee, an external selection committee is formed, made up of three to five officers (usually chief officers) from other departments. An outside officer must not know any of the candidates; this may cause him to be biased, or it may be perceived as biased. Ultimately, the committee’s decision is only as good as its individual members; hence, choosing officers with a wide variety of experience and who have demonstrated superior leadership skills themselves is helpful.
In some states, private and nonprofit corporations may provide experienced personnel with extensive backgrounds in promotional exams to serve on selection committees and create exam materials. For example, the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association has a promotional testing program that provides political subdivisions with written examinations and oral interview resources.
An initial criticism of using outside evaluators was that the evaluators would not know or understand a candidate’s personal traits and weaknesses. Using knowledgeable and experienced evaluators has proven this theory wrong. The evaluators, after spending several hours with the candidates, were able to detail each candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and general personality traits as well as those of any member of the department. Nonetheless, the evaluators took a neutral view in evaluating these qualities and ranked the candidates. Again, at every step in this process, take the utmost care to maintain fairness so the firefighters will have confidence in the promotional process.
Once the qualified candidates have been identified and the selection committee has been chosen, interview dates are set. The committee chair sets candidates’ interview times. Although candidates may reschedule individual interview times, the candidate is responsible for making the necessary arrangements and for alerting the chair to any changes. Although this can be difficult, it also may demonstrate the firefighter’s organizational skills and willingness to invest his time in the process.
The interviews are conducted in four sections, which may or may not be held at the same time.
Background. The first part of the interview process focuses on the candidate’s background, which is his opportunity to highlight his training, education, and experience and is the candidate’s best chance to explain why he should be promoted. Conversely, the interviewers will try to explore, and even exploit, the candidate’s historical weaknesses. Examples of typical background questions include the following:
• Why should you get the job?
• What is your worst or weakest characteristic?
• How does this negative characteristic affect your performance?
• How are you perceived by your fellow firefighters?
• Are there any negative perceptions? If so, what are they?
• What is your weakest area-education or experience?
• Which trait is more important for success as a lieutenant in this department?
Safety. The second oral interview section focuses on safety issues; questions are typically taken from fire service textbooks.1 Candidates are informed in advance of which textbooks will be used, so that they can read and review the material. Using books as a reference/resource for the oral questioning also provides some objectivity in rating the quality of the interviewee’s answers.
Issues discussed include rollover, flashover, backdraft, building collapse causes and indicators, utility hazards and control, and residential/commercial heating and electrical system hazards. Many times, this is an area in which a detailed question relating to a seemingly remote point will be asked. Although the candidate may consider the question trivial, such questions are asked because knowledge of the answer and subject matter demonstrates the firefighter’s awareness of facts that may keep the entire crew safe on the fireground. Specific examples of such questions include the following:
• Should a collapse danger zone extend all the way around a Type 5 constructed building? Explain your answer or reasoning.
• Under what circumstance is it permissible for a fire crew to stop a natural gas leak in a plastic pipe? (Note: This tactic should be avoided, since it may result in an explosion.)
Operations. The third exam section concerns operational issues. The candidate is often kept under constant pressure in this part of the interview to see how well he performs under adverse conditions. Originally, my department used scenarios that we read to the candidate. In the last promotional exam, we used computer-generated models, complete with moving fire and smoke, to test the candidate’s ability to provide a size-up, to discuss particular fireground strategies, and to initiate tactics. A wide variety of buildings with different fire and smoke scenarios can be used; with the proper computer training program, buildings in your own town can be used for this part of the interview. Response ratings are based on information contained within fire service textbooks relating to strategy and tactics, which again lends objectivity to the grading process.
In addition to the scenario-based questions, short tactical questions are appropriate during this section. Although these questions require short responses, they test the firefighter’s knowledge of operational issues that a company officer may face. Such questions include the following:
• What are the appropriate strategy and tactics when encountering a cloud of vaporized oil and air, heated above flash point, within a residence (known as “the white ghost”)?
• What are the appropriate strategy and tactics for a natural gas leak occurring on the interior of a residential structure?
• Explain the difference between venting for life and venting for fire.
• Why should a second hoseline follow the path of the first hoseline?
Questions regarding the candidate’s knowledge of the department’s SOPs are also asked. They relate to many different subject areas, including EMS, hazardous materials, motor vehicle accidents, and structural fire responses. Some departments may also want to add a component to the exam that uses actual field efficiencies. Some departments have simulated Mayday exams or low-air scenarios to determine the candidate’s ability to operate in the field under pressure.
Human relations. The promotional exam’s final section tests the candidate’s ability to handle personnel issues. More recently, this section has received greater emphasis and weight; most problems occurring within the firehouse relate to human relations, not operational issues. Often, if the company officer is a good problem solver, he will resolve issues early and not allow them to detract from the company’s efficiency. If the company officer is a good motivator, he will be able to lead members toward training and operational goals. It is also much easier for a lieutenant or captain to educate himself about firefighting operations than it is to learn how to deal with other people. After all, the officer has been interacting with other people usually for more than 20 years of his life. Old habits are not broken easily, and it is often easier to train or retrain the officer with respect to operational issues.
Personnel issue questions can vary greatly; real world examples are used often. Examples of personnel questions candidates are asked include the following:
• If you disagree with a chief officer’s decision regarding an administrative personnel matter, how would you handle that disagreement?
• You have just directed a member of your station/company to complete a work assignment at the station. In front of other firefighters, this firefighter refuses to comply with your directive. This is not the first time that this person has refused to comply with a directive. The other station firefighters are watching you to see what action you will take. What do you do?
• A firefighter in the station reports that another member of your crew, outside your presence, made a sexist/discriminatory comment directly to a member of an independent ambulance crew. How do you handle this situation?
In the final promotional exam section, one panel member chose to ask questions regarding the candidate’s knowledge of the department’s history and tradition. The belief was that each candidate should be familiar with these issues, and, if not, the candidate was pushed to see how well he would function under pressure regarding subject areas not anticipated as part of the exam.
IMPACT AND THE FUTURE
Since our department has initiated this promotional process, each firefighter knows and understands what is expected of him; many members have left the promotional process clearly comprehending why they must study and train more if they are going to succeed. Candidates are also provided feedback regarding their successes or failures during the interview process so that even those firefighters who are unsuccessful benefit from the process. This feedback also gives panel members the additional opportunity to explain what is expected of candidates by way of continuing education, additional training, and continued experience in the field. The bar of excellence is raised each time a promotion takes place.
Fire departments often spend many months, up to a year, planning the purchase of a piece of equipment or a new fire apparatus. Conversely, some promotional decisions are made overnight without any deliberate planning. Yet, the impact of a poorly chosen officer will be far greater than the purchase of the wrong piece of equipment, and, in many instances, the officer is much harder to replace. Choosing a company officer, a lieutenant, or a captain is a significant decision that will have far-reaching effects on department operations. The company officer will have the greatest impact on the actions, attitudes, and skill levels of those who serve beneath him.
For many departments, the processes outlined in this article would constitute a radical change. Yet, today’s operational, administrative, and legal requirements demand that the best and most qualified candidate for the job be chosen. Fire departments must become safer and more efficient; to do so, change must be directed toward the first rung on the personnel management ladder. The days of closed-door appointments and popularity contests must give way to 21st century business management principles. The fire service owes this approach not only to our future leaders but also to our constituents, who will also be positively affected by this change. ■
1. Comstock, David C. “Chip,” “10 Books to Keep You Safe,” Fire Engineering Online, October 27, 2003. Available at http://fe.pennnet.com/articles/article_display.cfm?Section=ARCHI&C=LNEWS&ARTICLE_ID=190812.
■ DAVID “CHIP” COMSTOCK JR. is a 23-year fire service veteran and chief of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District in Poland, Ohio. He is a chief fire officer designee and lectures on fire service topics relating to chief and company officer operations, liability, and personnel issues. Comstock is an attorney in the firm of Comstock, Springer & Wilson Co., LPA, in Youngstown, Ohio. His law practice focuses on insurance defense litigation, including governmental liability and insurance fraud/arson cases.