Remaking Your Department’s Promotional Process

One of the most important things we do in the fire service is ensure we promote the right people to the right positions. However, few departments emphasize the promotional process to ensure the best candidate is selected. Often, we rely on a default system such as a pass/fail written exam or seniority. Other times—predominantly in the volunteer world—we hold elections for our officers. Neither of these emphasize promoting a well-rounded and competent officer. You may promote the member with the most time on the job, but does he know his job?

The Officer’s Credentials

An officer has a lot of responsibility, both in the firehouse and on scene. He is the first contact for personnel issues regarding discipline, benefits, training, and employee evaluations. He also serves in command roles on the fireground, making life-and-death decisions. So, it is imperative that we select people to fill these positions who can complete their duties competently. Is this the same member who has the same training, education, and certifications as he did when he came out of the academy? Experience is important, but there is a difference between 15 years of experience and one year of experience 15 times.

What about the person who’s elected? He may be popular and people like him, but does he have the skills needed to lead? Is he going to be able to discipline the member who’s voting for him next month?

It’s such an important decision; why do we put so little effort into it? Some people feel that it isn’t fair for a member to spend 30 years riding backward. Others have unions that fight tooth-and-nail to ensure seniority-based promotions. Still others fear anything else would cause legal issues and bias in the promotional process. Whatever the reasons, we must stop and reevaluate our promotional processes. The officers we promote have their companies’ lives in their hands. It isn’t about what seems “fair.” It isn’t about what’s best for the individual; it’s about what’s best for the department and the people we serve. Not everyone is going to be promoted, and not everyone should be promoted. There’s nothing wrong with being the senior firefighter; it is an honorable title.

Redesigning the Processes

How do we redesign our promotional processes? First, establish a minimum standard for each position. Second, train personnel in the prerequisite skills required for the position they want. Third, create an extended promotional exam, which leads into training those selected for their new position. Last, generate a mentorship program that allows members to start their new position with guidance. Again, these are merely suggestions; feel free to do what suits your departmental needs.

Minimum standards for a position usually come in the form of “position descriptions.” If you do not have descriptions for every position within your department, develop them. They should list a general statement of duties; examples of work; their supervisors; whom they supervise; and the minimum requirements for that position, which should coincide with the position, such as an engineer being required to have Firefighter II or pumper certification or a lieutenant needing Fire Officer I certification.

Prior to the promotional process, appoint a committee to grade the interview and practical skills portion of the test. The committee should consist of the chief (or his designee), a chief officer, an officer above the rank of the promotional position, an officer at the level of the position, and a union representative. If your department does not have a union, use someone from the rank below the position being applied for; this gives a varied view to the responses to each question and ensures fairness. Also, assign each committee member his own grade sheets to each question, which are totaled to create a final score.

Next, create a list of required department-sponsored classes prior to applying for a promotion to ensure all candidates have the prerequisite skills needed to pass the promotional exam and succeed in that position. For example, before an engineer can be promoted to lieutenant, he must take a class on strategies and tactics, firefighter safety, and personnel management. Create the classes based on the department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) to best prepare the candidates for what they will face. Offer these classes regularly throughout the year so all personnel have the time to attend them; this also works well for “step-up” positions. If you require these courses before someone can step up into an “acting” position, ensure he has the tools needed to work in that capacity.

Focusing on the Candidate

Extend the promotional process to get an accurate picture of the candidate’s abilities and what he can offer in the position. He must have the knowledge, experience, and interpersonal and practical skills to operate in that position. Some of the best ways to judge these competencies are through a written exam, by compiling an experience portfolio, by conducting an interview, and by evaluating practical skills. Judge each of these steps with points, and give them equal weight in the overall score. Also assign a minimum passing score to each area; this will allow a truly fair evaluation of the candidate. If a candidate knows his job and can command any scene without issue, he can make up for any deficiencies with interpersonal skills. By using this extended evaluation, you can give those who aren’t good test takers a chance and weed out those who can ace tests but can’t perform the skills.

Base the written exam on professional publications relevant to the position and departmental SOPs. Also, generate a reading list to allow candidates to study for the exam. Have a set question bank, and reevaluate it regularly to ensure it is up-to-date and accurate with current practices and SOPs. In addition, create an experience portfolio packet for each position. Have candidates note their years of experience, certifications, education, awards, committee work, special projects, professional contributions, and whatever else you may want to add. Each section should assign points gained based on the experience. For example, give one point for each year of experience and five points for an associate degree. Many variations are available.

If your department has engineers but it does not require a firefighter to be an engineer to promote to lieutenant, assign members one point per year for being a firefighter and two points per year for being an engineer; this gives an edge to the engineers and incentivizes promoting to that level. Also offer one point per certification not relevant to the position such as driver/operator for lieutenant, but offer two points for certifications that are above the minimums such as Officer II. It’s a great way to fairly judge the candidate’s experience. Make sure candidates know from where you want these points to come, and assign a maximum number of points to each section. Make them difficult to obtain.

Beginning the Process

The interview allows you to interact with the candidate and gauge his interpersonal skills, getting a picture of the candidate in his own words. Predesignate the questions, and allow the interviewers to ask for clarification on answers (if needed), but do not ask additional questions. This will help ensure all candidates receive the same interview. Grade each answer on a numerical scale, which will be the candidate’s score for the interview.

The practical skills portion of the process should be run much like the interview, with each committee member grading each area of the drill. Have a predetermined, practical evaluation based on departmental SOPs; it should be the same for each candidate. Lay out the specific steps for the operation for the promotional committee and clearly state the expectations. Make the grade sheet similar to that of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians practical skills sheets, which lists each step required.

Once you have completed the evaluations and you have promoted the member, conduct a formal class on his new position. Structure the class so that it details all the expectations and duties performed in the new rank. Also explain the other job aspects such as report writing, personnel evaluations, and disciplinary processes. This ensures that every officer has a thorough understanding of what is expected and that everything must be completed to standard. You can’t be angry when none of the paperwork is completed correctly if you never taught the member how to do it.

The final phase of the promotional process is a mentorship program. Allow the new officer to work in the position under a seasoned officer. This way, he has someone to turn to when he has questions. The seasoned officer can pass on experiences, and the officer can be evaluated in his new position. It can vary in length and complexity, but it’s an important step.

These suggestions are just that—suggestions. Take them, change them, cut some things, and add others. Tailor everything to your department’s staffing, budget, culture, and policies. You don’t have to adopt anything, but you must put more emphasis on promoting the right people. We need to properly prepare the younger generation to promote, and promote for success.


JUSTIN THOROUGHMAN is a nine-year fire service veteran and a firefighter/operator with the St. George Fire Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has also held the positions of firefighter, engineer, captain, and shift commander.

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