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What It Takes To Land A Job

Battalion Chief Paul Lepore

Landing a job in the fire service is truly a unique challenge. On average, there are over 100 candidates who apply for each opening. Since the competition is so intense, what does it take to be the top candidate?

Many candidates believe it is important to be the “most qualified” individual in the testing process. The truth is that we are looking for someone who will fit into our family. In short, we have an opening that we need to fill. Since we can choose whomever we want, we want to choose someone we like. Those candidates who become known to us either before or during the testing process have a better chance of scoring well on the exam.

The best way to become someone who stands out in the hiring process is to understand the role of a firefighter. This can best be accomplished by taking fire science courses at the local junior college or online. Another way to gain knowledge and experience in the fire service is to become a volunteer or reserve firefighter. These candidates will have made a name for themselves long before the testing process.

Candidates often volunteer for departmental activities. These activities include departmental BBQ’s, CPR training events for the community and any other opportunities that may arise to give a candidate a chance to be visible to the members of the department. As you are flipping burgers, it is entirely possible that a captain, battalion chief or even the fire chief will stop you and introduce him or herself. This is your opportunity meet influential people on the department. Once the introductions are made, the conversation often steers toward what you are doing. This is your opportunity to explain that it is your goal to become a member of the department.

Most departments have a minimum passing score for the written exam and physical agility tests. This leaves the bulk of the score (oftentimes 100%) for the oral interview. Since we are looking to hire people we like and want to have as part of our family, it is imperative that the oral board knows who you are before you walk in the door. This may be extremely difficult on a large department since there are just too many people to meet. On a smaller department it is possible to “make the rounds” to all or most of the fire stations before your oral interview. Imagine what an incredible opportunity it would be to take a practice interview with experienced firefighters.

It is important to note that you are establishing your reputation the minute you walk into the fire station. If you make a favorable impression, the firefighters will help you and maybe even pass positive information to the oral board. The same thing can be said if you make a poor showing.

It is impossible for the board to get to know you within a 20 – 30 minute interview. A candidate who maximizes his or her time before the interview by spending time in the stations and getting to know the firefighters can vastly improve his or her score. If the firefighters like you, they can put in a word to the oral board. If the oral board doesn’t have a good feel for you there is no way you will score in the top.

The way we score candidates is different than most people would expect. If the board consists of two or three firefighters, the minute you walk out the door we look at each other and try to decide if we want you on our crew. If the interviewers really like you they will score you in the high 90’s. If they thought you were the average “vanilla” candidate with the usual complement of fire science classes, maybe even the academy and a reserve firefighter position, you will be in the low to mid 80’s. If the board really doesn’t like your demeanor or feels like you were completely unprepared for the interview, you will be below the minimum score of 70%.

If you have already taken fire department examinations, reflect back to your oral interview scores and try to interpret what the board is trying to tell you. If you are in the high 90’s I would suggest that you make sure you are in top physical condition. You are on the brink of being hired. Don’t change what you are doing, as you are already on the right track.

If you have taken a plethora of fire science courses and are doing all the right things to get a job, but still find yourself in the low to mid 80’s, you need to re-evaluate how you are performing on your interviews. It is important to remember that it is not about having more qualifications than the next candidate; it’s about coming across as someone we want to have on our crew. If you already have all of the wallpaper (certificates and classes) and you are not scoring well, you have a serious problem. It’s time to seek some outside advice. Your best bet is to find as many people as you can to give you mock interviews. Hopefully someone can identify what you are doing wrong and stop you from spinning your wheels.

If you scored below a 70% and this was your first or second exam, don’t worry, as it’s a long process. Continue taking fire science courses and learn as much as you can about the fire service. The more you understand about our culture and idiosyncrasies, the more you will be able to prove you are ready for the position.

The fire service is a unique occupation. There is no matrix to follow to ensure you will be offered a position. It’s actually the opposite. A candidate can have all of the horsepower known to mankind and still not be offered a position, while a candidate who has never taken a single class is offered a job on his or her first examination. To an outsider it may be quite perplexing. To an insider we all understand it is about being the person we all want to have on our crew. It really is not that complicated.