Preparing For the Promotional Process

By Ron Hiraki

Much of the work that I do is designing promotional exams or processes for public safety agencies. People frequently ask me how to prepare for the promotional process. Your preparation work will depend on the process your fire department uses and your training, education, and experience. The following is advice I have shared throughout the years. More importantly, it is advice that many people have told me worked for them.
Start Studying Early; Better Yet, Just Continue Studying.
You can never start studying too early. Don’t wait until the exam announcement is published. Even if the exam announcement has a list of study materials, there are typical materials such as standard operating procedures; collective bargaining agreements; safety regulations; and textbooks on tactics, building construction, and supervision/leadership you can study. Many agencies and professionals are looking for people who are lifelong learners. Many company officers tell their firefighters who are completing their probation to “keep on studying.” Are you starting to study or just continuing to study?
Learn and Understand As Much As You Can About the Promotional Process and the Job.
Begin by carefully reading the promotional exam announcement, which will contain the prerequisites you have to meet to apply for the exam or to be promoted. Make sure you already meet those prerequisites or can meet them by the deadline. You may be asked to prove that you meet those prerequisites by providing a copy of a diploma, transcript, certificate, or letter in your file or a by an entry on your training or service record. The exam announcement will usually tell you about the components and sequence of the exam, along with their relative weights. For example, the process may begin with a written exam worth 25 percent of the total score, followed by an assessment center worth 50 percent, and an interview worth 25 percent. The weights tell you where you will want to put your preparation efforts. Sometimes you have to pass one component before advancing to the next, so make sure you understand the process. 
The job description or position description will tell you what knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) the agency is looking for in a successful candidate. People often overlook the value of studying the job description or position description; after all, you work for or with the person in that position each day. KSAs needed to do the job are the KSAs that the agency will test for in the exam.
Be mindful of the deadline for submitting an application or letter of intent to take the exam.
I have seen candidates completely forget to apply for the exam. In one case, a fire department stated that the deadline was March 1 at 4:00 p.m. The hopeful applicant had the March 1 date on his calendar but failed to note the 4:00 p.m. deadline. The applicant assumed that the application would be accepted until 5:00 p.m., when headquarters closed. The applicant walked in at 4:40 p.m.; unfortunately, the administrative assistant could not accept the application. This sounds like a tough situation, but nearly all of the agencies with which I work welcome as many applicants as possible. It is better to have too many applicants than not enough. However, those leaders know that “loosening the rules” for one person will simply open a bigger can of worms when other people expect rules to be broken for their special circumstances.
Make a Schedule.
Whether you study for one month or one year, make a schedule for yourself. Your schedule should be based on the amount of time you need to spend on a specific reference or topic. Examples: If you are a paramedic, you might spend less time studying EM, but more time studying fire tactics. If you have done construction work, you might spend less time studying building construction. After you tailor your schedule to your “knowledge bank,” you can tailor the schedule to the components and weights of the exam.A schedule is a plan and sets mini goals for the planner. The ability to plan and meet goals is a very desirable quality in any professional.
Get a Study Partner.
Find someone to study with on a regular basis. You can share information and experiences and quiz each other. Make sure you and your study partner are equally committed to preparing for the exam. Your study partner may have different KSAs than you do, but those differences can benefit each of you. Consider your study partner’s availability, how often you will meet, and where. You don’t want the logistics of meeting to detract from your study efforts. My original study partner and I had completely different backgrounds, study methods, and learning styles; but our study session appointments caused us to study, be ready, and learn from each other. 
Make Use of “Other” Times.
We are all busy with a number of other activities. Try to make use of your “other” time. Put some notes on note cards and carry them in your pocket. You can review them while waiting at the doctor’s office or waiting to pick up the kids at school. If you have a long car ride, record some notes on a CD and listen to them while you drive. You will study and learn by making the note cards and CD, as well as reviewing or listening.
Helping Subordinates Helps You.
Company officers preparing for a chief officer process can help firefighter preparing for a company officer process. A good way to learn or practice is to teach or coach someone else. You will learn a lot by preparing scenarios, situational questions, and ordinary quiz questions for other people. You will double or even triple the benefits you will receive by listening to and watching these study partners respond to the scenarios or situational questions. Most importantly, by helping your firefighters, you are stepping up to demonstrate and practice good leadership skills.  
Involve Your Family.
Consider asking your family to help you. Over the years, my wife has helped me prepare for exams and interviews. It may not be the best way to spend time together, but each of us had an interest in studying. It was a little embarrassing when she knew some procedures better than I dud, but what the heck. In addition to helping you, a family member will gain a better understanding of the job you do and what you had to do to get it. 

I have not discussed various study techniques in this column. There are many good ideas out there, and they are very specific to you, depending on your learning style. Consider some of these general strategies and use what works for you. Don’t forget to keep the big picture in mind. The immediate goal is to do well in the process and earn that promotion, but the long-term goal is to learn the KSAs needed to do a good job.

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 holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs. 

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