The work of first responders is difficult, to say the least. Emotions run high during fire and emergency incidents. Psychological tests are administered and interpreted by psychologists as part of the overall recruitment process to help the fire service determine whether candidates are mentally prepared to cope with the stressful nature of the job.

Psychological tests assess and evaluate information that you provide to the examiner. Generally the information is gathsered through a series of written true or false questions, answers to questions read off a computer screen, and answers to interview questions. The accuracy of the test depends mainly on how pragmatically you answer the questions. Reviewing prior civil service standard professional psychological tests is difficult to do because the security of the tests must be maintained for ethical reasons. It is not so important that you know what questions you are going to be asked as it is to know what the examiner is trying to assess. This chapter provides you with a general understanding of what psychological tests are all about.

Civil service psychological tests can be broken down into three parts: occupational, personality, and polygraph. The following provides a short synopsis of these three major components of the test.

Occupational

In general, an occupational test seeks to match the interests, knowledge, abilities, and other characteristics of the candidate with those of firefighters already on the job. The theory behind this part of the test is that if you demonstrate attributes similar to most firefighters, then there is a good chance that you will acclimate readily to your new profession and fit in easily with fellow workers.

It takes a particular kind of person to want to perform rescue-related tasks. First responders and persons who gravitate to rescue-related work have been deemed by some psychologists to have a "rescue personality." It is a hypothesis that suggests that individuals who choose to become firefighters and first responders have similar characteristics and a predisposition to be rescuers before entering the job. Psychologists have identified the following characteristics and traits as being typical of individuals with a rescue personality:

  • action oriented
  • easily bored
  • enjoys being needed
  • highly dedicated
  • inner directed
  • likes control (of situations and themselves)
  • obsessed with high standards of performance
  • socially conservative
  • traditional

Personality

A personality test attempts to measure the candidate's persona or appearance he/she presents to the world. The two most commonly used personality tests given during the firefighter recruitment process are the revised Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2) and the Rorschach (inkblot) test.

The MMPI-2

The original MMPI-1 test was developed at the University of Minnesota Hospitals and first published in 1942. The MMPI-2, a revised version, was released in 1989. It is the standard used today.

The MMPI-2 test consists of more than 500 questions and takes approximately 60 to 90 minutes to complete. It is used to assess the mental status of candidates and possible abnormality in some of the following areas:

  • Hypochondriasis, or abnormal concern over the body's well-being
  • Paranoia, or persecution complex, characterized by rigid opinions and attitudes
  • Schizophrenia, characterized by bizarre thought processes and social alienation
  • Hysteria, or overreaction to stressful situations
  • Depression, or dissatisfaction with one's own life
  • Hypomania, or accelerated mood, speech, and motor activity
  • Psychopathic deviance, or nonacceptance of authority and amorality

A psychologist interprets the information gathered from the test in conjunction with other historical data (previous employment, academic performance, letters of recommendation, etc.) and constructs a psychological profile of the candidate. The MMPI-2 is also used as a screening device to eliminate candidates with obvious mental health problems.

The Rorschach Test

The Rorschach inkblot test is another popular psychological personality test. It was developed by Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychiatrist, in the early twentieth century. The Rorschach test is used to detect a wide array of mental illness including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder (manic depression)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders (abnormal panic, fear, phobia)
  • Psychopathic personality (dishonesty, lack of guilt)
  • Propensity toward violence and criminal behavior

There are ten official inkblots: five are black ink on white; two are black and red ink on white; and three are multicolored. The inkblots are shown to the candidate in a specific order, two times. The first time the inkblots are shown, it is done relatively quickly. The candidate is asked to verbally describe briefly what he or she envisions the inkblot to be. The second time, the candidate is given time to study the inkblot and is instructed to list his or her observations.

The candidate's responses are assessed not only on what he or she interprets the inkblots to be but also on the manner in which the observations are made and how this information is communicated to the psychologist during the entire Rorschach session. A candidate who looks at only a part of the inkblot, rather than the whole inkblot, or sees images only in the white areas, rather than in the inkblot itself, may be seen as showing negative behavior (obsession), for example.

The Polygraph

Also called a lie detector, the polygraph assesses the candidate's veracity when replying to pertinent questions of employment. The candidate is connected to a machine (polygraph) via wires and asked a series of questions. During the question and answer session, the polygraph monitors biological responses, such as heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and skin conductance. This information is used to assess the candidate's honesty. For example, when answering neutral questions (What is your name?), the candidate should be relaxed and exhibit uneventful physiological feedback to the machine. However, when answering real questions (Have you ever taken illegal drugs?), the candidate may exhibit abnormal physiological readings that can be analyzed to help determine if the candidate is answering truthfully. To demonstrate validity and reliability, these tests have built-in gauges that raise red flags when there are indications of lying.

When answering true or false questions or verbally responding to questions on a psychological test, don't be untruthful in order to supply the psychiatrist with what you believe to be a healthy reply. In many cases there is no preferred answer or response. Don't make the mistake of trying to make yourself "look good" by not answering questions in an honest and forthright manner.

Psychological testing is never completely valid or reliable. If you are disqualified from the job of firefighter for failing the psychological component of the exam, you may have a behavior or attitude disorder that you don't recognize. It can also mean that the psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or polygraph examiner reviewing your test results made an evaluation mistake on your data or an inaccurate interpretation of your biological feedback results. Inquire about any recourse you may have regarding retesting and/or reevaluation. You may be required to undergo psychotherapy to discover the reasons for your failure prior to getting a second chance at participating in a new psychological test.