Firefighter Career Information (page 3)
Throughout the country, fire departments use a number of different ways to assess firefighter candidates. This chapter provides a summary of the process of selecting recruits, from the initial application to the training academy.
There are few careers that are as demanding and require expertise in as many disciplines as fire- fighting. Although improved safety equipment and modern apparatus have made emergency response safer in many ways, there is still the potential of uncertainty and danger in even the most routine response.
Today, the fire service is an all-hazards response agency. Firefighters might find themselves at a trash fire and, before returning to quarters, have to render medical aid to a child who fell from her bike. If a problem or emergency is not clearly assigned to other agencies, the fire service is sent. In the twenty-first century, firefighters are on the front line of community protection. Hazardous materials require knowledge of chemistry. Terrorism, both homegrown and domestic, requires cross-training with law enforcement. Natural threats, such as floods, storms, and earthquakes, require knowledge of emergency management.
A career in the fire service is no longer a part-time career that provides benefits and the ability to run a side business, but rather requires a full-time commitment to lifelong learning. As a group, firefighters are seen by the community as heroes who are able to treat injuries like a combat medic; mitigate spilled chemicals as a professional chemist would; defeat terrorism alongside homeland defense responders; plan for emergencies at the level of a military planner; fight every fire, and rescue all who are in danger. For all of these reasons, communities are very careful whom they hire for fire department openings. All applicants must go through a rigorous testing and selection process that may last a few months to a year or more, so as to select only those who are qualified and prepared for the commitment. Although physical strength is still required, firefighters today must also have the academic skills to apply mathematics and sciences. Municipalities seek candidates with all the necessary skills, but they also seek potential firefighters who are trustworthy. When all is said and done, a fire-fighter occupies a position in which people must trust him or her with their lives and property.
In most cases, there are far more applicants for each position than can be appointed. The selection process may be made up of an initial application, background checks, a written examination, an oral interview or board, a physical ability test, a drug screening, and psychological tests. Being informed and prepared will help you to remain confident through every stage of the process.
That's one reason you are reading this book: It will tell you what to expect, so you will know exactly what the steps are in becoming a firefighter. Knowing those steps, you will have an edge over applicants coming in cold, and you can make a realistic assessment of your skills and abilities.
During this assessment, you might discover challenges that make becoming a firefighter unrealistic for you. However, you might instead find weaknesses that you can correct—and you can address them now, before you get involved in the selection process.
The Eligibility List
Most fire departments, or the city personnel departments that handle the selection process for them, establish a list of eligible candidates; many such lists rank candidates from highest to lowest. How ranks are determined varies from place to place; sometimes the rank is based solely on the written exam score, sometimes on the physical ability test, and sometimes on a combination of factors. Many municipalities are now combining scores on all the steps to develop an overall rating based on all aspects of the selection process. The point is, even if you make it through the entire selection process, the likelihood that you will be hired as a firefighter often depends on the quality of your performance in one or more parts of the selection process.
Make a commitment now: You need to work hard, in advance, to do well on the written exam, the physical ability test, and the oral interview (if there is one), so that your name will stand out at the top of your agency's eligibility list.
First, though, you need information. You need to know about the selection process for firefighters. This chapter outlines the basic process in its many steps. Not every fire department includes all of the steps discussed. The particulars of the process in the city where you are applying are usually available from the city human resources department or the fire department itself.
The basic qualifications you need to even think about becoming a firefighter vary from city to city. It's worthwhile to find out what those qualifications are in the agency you want to serve. Some qualifications are pretty standard:
- A minimum age—sometimes this can be as low as 18, but 21 is the age that seems to be most common today. In some departments, there is a maximum age, but for the most part, these have been replaced by the requirements of physical ability tests and health.
- A high school diploma, or its equivalent, but now many departments require some college, and a few are looking for an associate's degree or perhaps a professional certification.
- A clean criminal record
- Excellent physical and mental health
- A valid driver's license and a satisfactory driving record
Many jurisdictions, but not all, require that you live nearby or in the jurisdiction. Some fire departments give preference to otherwise qualified veterans over civilians. This may take the form of a policy, sometimes called a "Veteran's Preference" policy, whereby points are automatically added to the written exam. Is this unfair? No. Fire companies are a lot like military units. They follow a strict chain of command, and firefighters on the line work as a team, knowing that their lives are in each other's hands. Military personnel have learned the discipline and teamwork that are vital to firefighting and emergency services, making them very well qualified.
Increasingly, fire departments are also giving preference to applicants with fire and emergency medical certifications, such as National Board on Fire Professional Qualifications or ProBoard Accreditation Fire- fighter I, National Registry Emergency Medical Technician, or Paramedic or other fire service certifications, such as vehicle and technical rescue. Some fire departments have successfully used these to screen candidates or as entry requirements. As fire departments continue to shift to all-hazards response agencies, these certifications and higher levels of education will be important for service.
The Exam or Position Announcement
Applying to be a firefighter differs from applying for most other jobs. The differences begin with the exam or position announcement. You rarely see fire department openings advertised in the Help Wanted ads. Instead, the city usually starts looking for potential fire-fighters by means of a special announcement. This announcement will outline the basic qualifications for the position as well as the steps you will have to go through in the selection process. It often tells you some of the duties you will be expected to perform. It may give the date and place of the written exam, which for most positions is the first step in the selection process. Search the Web, looking for the area where you desire to be a firefighter, and determine if the fire department or department of public safety has a Website. Very often these sites will post calendars stating when the hiring process will begin and if and when they are hiring.
Get a copy of this announcement. Often your public library will have a copy, or you can get one directly from the fire department, city human resources department, or from the Internet. If exams are held irregularly, the fire or personnel department may maintain a mailing list so that you can receive an exam announcement the next time an exam is scheduled. If exams are held frequently, you will sometimes be told to simply show up at the exam site on a given day of the week or month. In those cases you usually get more information about the job and the selection process if you pass the written exam. Study the exam announcement, as well as any other material, such as brochures, that the department sends you. You need to be prepared for the whole selection process to be successful.
One very useful exercise is to create a table with two columns—one column should contain each individual requirement of the announcement in its own box; in the second column, you should fill in your qualifications at the time of application. This will give you a graphic view of how well you fulfill the job requirements contained in the announcement.
Sample Job Description
City of Newburg Fire Department Firefighter Job Description
General Definition of the Classification:
The firefighter performs responsible work in service to our city protecting citizens and their property against fire and other life safety risks. This title is engaged in life safety response that includes, but is not limited to, fire suppression, emergency medical responses, rescue, hazardous materials, and artificial and natural hazard mitigation or other related work as assigned. The work required by this classification is performed under the supervision of officers and managers appointed by the common council.
Examples of the Tasks and Work Performed by This Class:
- Responds to alarms for the purpose of fire suppression, rescue, advancing hose lines, performing entry into hazardous conditions, ventilation, laddering a structure, salvage of property, extrication of trapped individuals, providing emergency medical care and emergency hazard mitigation.
- Performs clean-up and overhaul work on emergency scenes.
- Conducts required water supply tests, including, but not limited to, hydrants and installed systems in structures and on apparatus.
- Responds to all emergency and non-emergency calls as dispatched, including service calls.
- Assists in the maintenance and repair of fire apparatus and equipment.
- Assists in the maintenance and cleaning of fire stations and grounds.
- Under the supervision of the company officers and other supervisors, conducts code inspections of residences and businesses to enforce fire codes and to develop prefire plans.
- Participates in continuing technical education and training programs both as an individual and through attendance at scheduled drills and classes.
- Conducts fire and life safety training classes, demonstrations, and station tours for public, school and community individuals, and groups.
- Backs up dispatchers and communications personnel when needed.
- Performs related tasks as assigned by supervisors.
Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
All candidates for this position must:
- Be at least 18 years of age.
- Be a resident of this city or Kings County.
- Have the ability to understand and follow written and oral instructions.
- Be able to establish and maintain cooperative relationships with fellow employees and the public.
- Be able to write reports and prepare records.
- Possess a strong mechanical aptitude.
- Be able to perform heavy manual labor and have skill in operating heavy equipment.
Required Medical Qualifications, Education, and Licenses for Appointment:
Upon appointment, the candidate must:
- Possess a valid driver's license.
- Be a high school graduate or hold an equivalent certificate.
Candidates must be in excellent health and have no conditions that would restrict their ability to safely do fire suppression and rescue work. Weight (body fat content) must be proportionate to height for men and women. Uncorrected distance visual acuity of at least 20/100 in the poorer eye and 20/40 in the better eye, correctable to at least 20/40 in one eye and 20/20 in the other eye, is required. Regarding refractive surgery, most persons who have had these procedures will be passed. However, some may be deferred for several months or disqualified based on an individualized assessment of the surgical outcome. Color vision: Candidates must be able to accurately and quickly name colors and must be free of other visual impairments that would restrict the ability to perform firefighter duties.
Firefighters are required to be nonsmokers throughout their employment with the Newburg Fire Department.
Sample Table for This Announcement
Job Announcement for Newburg FD Required to Take the Written Examination Me Be at least 18 years of age _____ Be a resident of this city or Kings County _____ Have the ability to understand and follow written and oral instructions _____ Be able to establish and maintain cooperative relationships with fellow employees and the public _____ Be able to write reports and prepare records _____ Possess a strong mechanical aptitude _____ Be able to perform heavy manual labor and have _____ skill in operating heavy equipment _____ Required for Appointment Possess a valid driver's license _____ Be a high school graduate or hold an equivalent certificate _____ Candidates must be in excellent health and have no conditions that would restrict their ability to safely do fire suppression and rescue work _____ Weight (body fat content) must be proportionate to height for men and women _____ Uncorrected distance visual acuity of at least 20/100 in the poorer eye and 20/40 in the better eye, correctable to at least 20/40 in one eye and 20/20 in the other eye is required _____ Regarding refractive surgery, most persons who have had these procedures will be passed. However, some may be deferred for several months or disqualified based on an individualized assessment of the surgical outcome _____ Color vision: Candidates must be able to accurately and quickly name colors and must be free of other visual impairments that would restrict the ability to perform firefighter duties _____ Firefighters are required to be nonsmokers throughout their employment with the Newburg Fire Department _____
- Neatness and accuracy count. Filling in your apartment number in the blank labeled "city" reflects poorly on your ability to follow directions.
- Most agencies don't want your resume. Save your time and energy for filling out the application form the agency gives you.
- Verify all information you put on the form. Don't guess or estimate; if you are not sure of, for instance, the exact address of the company you used to work for, look it up.
- If you are mailing your application, take care to submit it to the proper address. It might go to the personnel department rather than to the fire department. Follow the directions on the exam announcement.
Often the first step in the process of becoming a fire-fighter is filling out an application. Sometimes this is a complete application, asking about your education, employment experience, personal data, and so on. Sometimes there is just an application to take the written or physical test, with a fuller application coming later. In any case, at some point, you will probably be asked some questions you wouldn't expect to see on a regular job application. You might be asked things such as whether you have ever received any speeding tickets or been in trouble with the law, whether you've used illegal drugs, or even whether any relatives work for the city or for the fire department. Your answers to these questions, as well as the more conventional ones, will serve as the starting point if the department conducts an investigation of your background, so it is important to answer all questions accurately and honestly. If you don't remember what year you worked for XYZ Company or your exact address your sophomore year of high school, don't guess; look it up.
The Written Exam
In most jurisdictions, taking a written exam is the next step in the application process, though in some cases the physical ability test comes first.
The written exam is your first opportunity to show that you have what it takes to be a firefighter. As such, it is extremely important. Candidates who don't pass the written exam don't go any farther in the selection process. Furthermore, the written exam score often figures into applicants' rank on the eligibility list; in some cases, this score by itself determines your rank, whereas in others it is combined with other scores, such as physical ability or oral board scores. In those places, a person who merely passes the written exam with a score of, say, 70, is unlikely to be hired when there are plenty of applicants with scores in the 90s. The exam bulletin may specify what your rank will be based on.
What the Written Exam Is Like
Most written exams simply test basic skills and aptitudes: how well you understand what you read, your ability to follow directions, your judgment and reasoning skills, your ability to read and understand maps and floor plans, and sometimes your memory or your math skills. In this preliminary written exam, you may not be tested on your knowledge of fire behavior, fire- fighting procedures, or any other specific body of knowledge. This test is often designed only to see how well you can read, reason, and do basic math.
In some places, taking the exam involves studying written materials in advance and then answering questions about them on the exam. These written materials generally have to do with fire and firefighting—but all you have to do is study the guide you are given. You are still being tested on just your reading skills and memory, and there are good reasons for this.
Firefighters have to be able to read, understand, and act on complex written materials—not only fire law and fire procedures, but also scientific materials about fire, combustible materials, and chemicals. They have to be able to think clearly and independently because lives depend on decisions they make in a split second. They have to be able to do enough math to read and understand pressure gauges, or estimate the height of a building and the amount of hose needed to reach the third floor. They have to be able to read maps and floor plans so they can get to the emergency site quickly or find their way to an exit even in a smoke-filled building.
Most exams are multiple-choice tests of the sort you have often encountered in school. You get an exam book and an answer sheet where you have to fill in little circles (bubbles) or squares with a number 2 pencil.
Written Exam Tips
- Ask for and use any material the fire department or personnel department puts out about the written test. Some agencies have study guides; some even conduct study sessions. Why let others get a vital advantage while you don't?
- Practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more.
- Try to find some people who have taken the exam recently, and ask them what was on the exam. Their hindsight—" I wish I had studied…"—can be your foresight.
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