Firefighter Career Information (page 5)
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.
How to Prepare for the Written Exam
Pay close attention to any material the fire department or city human resources department puts out about the exam. If there is a study guide, study it. Pay close attention to what you are going to be tested on, and then practice with similar materials.
That's where this book comes in. There are four practice exams here that include the skills most commonly tested. There are also chapters on each kind of question you are most likely to encounter. Each chapter includes not only sample questions but also tips and hints on how to prepare for that kind of question and how to do well on the exam itself. You should also check out Chapter 3,"The LearningExpress Test Preparation System," which tells you all you need to know about preparing for and taking standardized tests.
Finding Out How You Did
Some municipalities will send you information that shows you the questions you answered incorrectly or the areas where you were weaker than the other candidates. In other jurisdictions, the examination results list may be posted in order of the rank of the candidates with no grades shown. Most municipalities will send a letter with the test results and instructions on what to do next or how to appeal.
Physical Ability Tips
- Take advantage of any training sessions or test-course walk-throughs the fire department offers. The whole purpose of such sessions is to help you pass the physical test.
- Start exercising now. Yes, today. Work up to a 45-minute workout at least five times a week.
- Exercises that increase your upper-body strength are particularly useful. Consider lifting weights several times a week.
- If you smoke, stop.
- If you are overweight, eat a healthier diet along with your exercise.
- Exercise with a friend. Listen to tunes while you work out. Give yourself rewards for reaching milestones like shaving a minute off your mile-run time or bench pressing ten more pounds. Find out what will motivate you to work hard and do it.
The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT)
The Candidate Physical Ability Test is the next step in the process for many fire departments; some put this step first. You should expect to have a medical clearance, or at the very least sign a medical waiver stating that you are in good enough shape to undertake this stressful test, before you will be allowed to participate. The fire department wants to make sure that no one has a heart attack in the middle of the test. So, you can expect the test to be tough.
Firefighting is, after all, physically demanding work. Once again, lives depend on whether your strength, stamina, and overall fitness allow you to carry out the necessary tasks during an emergency. If you make it to the academy and later into a fire company, you can expect to continue physical training and exercises throughout your career. In fact, in some cities all firefighters are required to retake the Candidate Physical Ability Test every year.
Chapter 15 will give you a very detailed explanation of the Candidate Physical Ability Test.
What the Candidate Physical Ability Test Is Like
The exact events that make up the Candidate Physical Ability Test vary from place to place, but the tasks you have to perform are almost always job-related—they are a lot like the physical tasks you will actually have to perform as a firefighter. Some tests are set up as obstacle courses; others consist of a group of stations. In some, you are timed from start to finish with no breaks; others allow a break period between stations. The tests are timed. Your performance on the test is scored depending on that time. Often you have to wear full (heavy) protective gear, including an air pack, throughout these events. Here is an example of the events in a test that you would typically have ten minutes, 20 seconds to complete:
- Stair climb with weighted vest
- Hose drag
- Equipment carry
- Ladder raise and extension
- Forcible entry
- Rescue dummy drag
- Ceiling breach and pull
In an obstacle-course setup like this one, you might be given the opportunity to walk the course before you actually have to take the test. During the test itself, you would be timed as you went through the events, and you would have to complete the events within a set time limit to pass. In departments where the Candidate Physical Ability Test figures into your rank on the eligibility list, merely meeting the maximum time to pass isn't good enough; people who have lower times will be hired before you are.
Different departments have different policies on retesting if you fail. Some allow you to retest on the same day after a rest period. Some allow you to come back another time and try again—usually up to a set maximum number of tries. And in some departments, your first try is the only chance you get; if you fail, you are out, at least until the next testing period. Few departments will allow you to retest, if you have already passed, simply to improve your time.
You can usually find out just what tasks are included in the Candidate Physical Ability Test from the exam announcement or related materials.
How to Prepare for the Candidate Physical Ability Test
Many urban fire departments report that the Candidate Physical Ability Test is the one step of the process that most applicants fail. People come in unprepared, and they are simply not strong enough or fast enough to do all the events, while wearing heavy gear, in the time allotted. Female applicants, in particular, have high failure rates on physical ability tests because some of the events require a lot of upper-body strength. Improved techniques, not just improved strength, can help applicants pass this part of the exam.
The Candidate Physical Ability Test is one area where advance preparation is almost guaranteed to pay off. No matter how good the shape you are in, start an exercise program now. You can design your program around the requirements listed in the exam announcement if you want, but any exercise that will increase your strength and stamina will help. Because sheer brute force is required to drag a 150-pound dummy or to lift a 50-foot ladder, exercises that increase your strength are particularly important. But you will also want to include some aerobic exercise such as running or swimming to improve your stamina and overall fitness as well.
If you are not prepared, the stress of the test can lead to heat stress, which is a serious medical condition. If you are not in great shape, consult a doctor before you begin. Start slow and easy and increase your activity as you go. As you gain strength, start wearing weights on your ankles and wrists, and later add a heavy backpack. And remember that you don't have to do all this work alone. Working out with a friend is not only more fun, it also helps guard against the temptation to cheat by skipping a day or doing fewer repetitions.
Many fire departments conduct training sessions for would-be applicants to help them get up to the required level of fitness. Some allow you to walk through the course ahead of time. If any of these opportunities are available to you, be sure to use them.
For more information on the physical ability test and how to prepare for it, see Chapter 15, "The Candidate Physical Ability Test."
The Background Investigation
Most fire departments conduct background investigations of applicants who pass the written and physical tests. Some departments prescreen applicants and may reject an applicant who has a criminal record. Fire-fighters have to be honest, upright citizens who can get along with both their company and the people they serve. You may not even know such an investigation is going on—until someone at the oral interview asks you why you wrote on your application that you never used drugs when your high school friends all say you regularly smoked marijuana on weekends. (That's why it is important to answer honestly on your application.)
What the Background Investigation Is Like
The rigorousness with which your background will be checked depends on the policies of your department. Some conduct a fairly superficial check, calling your former employers and schools simply to verify that you were there when you say you were there and didn't have any problems during that time.
Other departments will investigate you in a great deal more depth, asking their contacts how long and how well they knew you and what kind of person they found you to be.Did you meet your obligations? How did you deal with problems? Did they find you to be an honest person? Do they know of anything that might affect your fitness to be a firefighter? The references you provided will lead the investigator to other people who knew you, and when the investigator is finished, he or she will have a pretty complete picture of what kind of person you are.
A few fire departments include a polygraph, or lie detector test, as part of the background investigation. As long as you have been honest in what you have said when your stress reactions weren't being monitored by a polygraph machine, a lie detector test is nothing to worry about.
How to Prepare for the Background Investigation
The best way you can improve your chances of getting through a background investigation with flying colors is by working on any problems in your background. You can't change the past, but you can use the present to improve your chances in the future. You can address problems that might give a background investigator pause: Pay your old traffic tickets, document your full recovery from a serious illness, or establish your drug-free status since high school.
You can also take steps to make yourself a more attractive candidate by getting related experience. Join a local volunteer fire department to get training in the basics of firefighting skills and emergency medical services. Many local fire departments pay for emergency services training and some training is free to fire department members who reside in the county for which they volunteer. Most, if not all, career fire departments now require at a minimum certification as a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician. Candidates who possess this certification will place higher on the eligibility list than those who do not.
Oral Interviews and Boards
The selection process in your fire department is likely to include one or more oral interviews. There may be an individual interview with the chief or deputy chief, or there may be an oral board, in which you would meet with several people—or you may face both. Whether it is an individual interview or an oral board, the interviewers are interested in your interpersonal skills—how well you communicate with them—as well as in your qualifications to be a firefighter.
What the Oral Interview Is Like
In some cities, applicants who get this far in the process meet with the chief or deputy chief, who may conduct something like a typical job interview. The chief or deputy chief might describe in detail what the job is like, ask you how well you think you can do a job like that, and ask you why you want to be a firefighter in the first place. In the process, the chief will also be assessing your interpersonal skills, whether you seem honest and relatively comfortable in talking to him or her. You may also be asked questions about your background and experience.
This interview can be a make-or-break part of the process, with the chief approving or rejecting your candidacy, or the chief may rank you against other applicants, in which case the chief 's assessment of you is likely to figure into your place on the eligibility list.
The chief 's interview may also include situational questions like those typically asked by an oral board, or you may be facing an oral board in addition to your interview with the chief.
Oral Board Interview Tips
- Dress neatly and conservatively, as you would for a business interview.
- Be polite; say "please" and "thank you," "sir" and "ma'am."
- Remember, one-half of communication is listening. Look at board members or interviewers as they speak to you, and listen carefully to what they say.
- Think before you speak. Nod or say "OK" to indicate that you understand the question, and then pause a moment to collect your thoughts before speaking.
- If you start to feel nervous, take a deep breath, relax, and just do your best.
- Prepare by having a friend or family member ask you questions.
What the Oral Board Is Like
The oral board typically assesses such qualities as interpersonal skills, communication skills, judgment and decision-making abilities, respect for diversity, and adaptability. The board itself consists of two to five people, who may be firefighters or civilian personnel or interview specialists. There is usually some variety in the makeup of the board: It usually consists of officers of various ranks and/or civilians from the personnel department or from the community.
The way the interview is conducted depends on the practices of the individual department. You may be asked a few questions similar to those you would be asked at a normal employment interview: Why do you want to be a firefighter? What qualities do you have that would make you good at this job? You may be asked questions about your background, especially if your application or background investigation raised any questions in the board members' minds. Have answers prepared for such questions in advance.
In addition to such questions, you may be presented with hypothetical situations that you will be asked to respond to. A board member may say something like this: "A coworker on your shift is posting derogatory, racially based jokes in his gear rack and his locker. Another coworker on your shift finds the jokes tasteless and offensive. What would you do?" You would then have to come up with an appropriate response to this situation.
Increasingly, cities have standardized the oral board questions. The same questions are asked of every candidate, and when the interview is over, the board rates each candidate on a standard scale. This procedure helps the interviewers reach a somewhat more objective conclusion about the candidates they have interviewed and may result in a score that is included in the factors used to rank candidates in the eligibility list.
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