Preparing for Firefighter Candidate Interviews
Battalion Chief Paul Lepore
The fire department interview is a unique challenge that is a component of the hiring process for most fire departments. As a general rule, the interview is usually weighed more than any other portion of the exam. It is not uncommon to have each of the other phases of the exam weighted “pass or fail,” while the interview is weighted 100% of the candidate’s overall score. Simply stated, the interview is the most important phase of the exam process.
Many of the questions put a candidate in a “no win” situation. They are designed to see how the individual can think on his or her feet. While there are often no clear-cut right answers, there are usually automatic fail points.
The best way to learn how to succeed in the interview is to educate yourself on the process. The more you learn about the types of questions that are commonly asked, the more you can do your research, reflect on your own views and attitudes, and present appropriate answers.
The competition is so stiff to get a job (usually one hundred applicants for each opening) that fire departments only hire the cream of the crop. One wrong answer will often eliminate a candidate from the process.
Once a candidate understands the interview process and learns what we are looking for, he or she scores well on every future interview. As a result, the candidate will receive multiple job offers.
Since many fire departments only require that a candidate be at least 18-years of age and possess a high school diploma or GED, a candidate theoretically could get hired without having taken a single fire science or EMT course. However, completing EMT training, taking fire science courses and graduating from a basic fire academy will undoubtedly improve a candidate’s chances of getting hired.
If a department puts its new recruits through a formal training academy, a candidate who does not possess any of the aforementioned credentials will still have a chance in the hiring process. Other departments require completion of a basic fire academy to even qualify to apply.
The most important thing in the interview process is for the candidate to present him or herself as a person we want to have as a part of our crew. A candidate can have the most impressive resume, but if he or she is not someone we want to spend a 24-hour shift with, we will not hire him or her to be part of our family. Remember, we have the option of choosing anyone we want. We can train you to be a firefighter; we cannot train you to be a good person.
The best way to improve your interview scores is with practice, or mock, interviews. Knock on the door of your local firehouse and enlist the help of the firefighters. They undoubtedly took an interview to get their badge. Some crews will be more current than others on the interview and testing process. Since firefighters are usually not short on opinions, they will probably have a lot to share with you. Listen to what they have to say and incorporate it into your delivery.
Once you have learned the basics of how to take an interview, a private coaching session will certainly enhance your score. I would suggest learning all you can before enlisting the assistance of an interview coach. When you feel you are ready, it is a great investment of your time and money.
The following is an excerpt from my book, “Smoke Your Firefighter Interview.” Although it may be a review for those who have already the read book, I feel it is important to be exposed to the thought processes behind an interview question.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Paul Lepore. My family and I live in Dana Point, California. My wife, Marian, and I have been married for 12 years and have two daughters, Ashley and Samantha. I grew up in Huntington Beach and spent the majority of my life in northern Orange County before moving south 3 years ago.
I enjoy sport fishing. My wife and I own a boat on which we spend a lot of time fishing and exploring the waters around Catalina Island. My love of fishing has taken me on some extensive travels through Baja, California. I have even written a book about my passion, called “Sport Fishing in Baja.” In addition to the outdoors, I also like playing racquetball and basketball and enjoy riding my bicycle.
I currently work as an electrician. Two years ago I set myself a goal to become a firefighter. Since then I have pursued an education in fire science and have learned all I could about becoming a good firefighter.
The purpose of this question is to provide you, the candidate, with an opportunity to discuss your personal life. As you may have noticed, I did not mention much about my qualifications. I used this opportunity to talk about my personal life and my hobbies. This kind of question is designed to encourage you to bring out information about your life experiences and personal interests.
Sharing personal information about yourself gives the rater an opportunity to learn what kind of person you are. It also gives the rater a chance to discover something about you that he or she can relate to. That may create a positive feeling, which may result in him/her giving you a higher score. Let me give you an analogy to illustrate my point.
Imagine that our wives work together and have dragged us to their annual office Christmas party. We are sitting at a circular table dressed in our suits and ties. Our wives disappear to mingle with their co-workers. You and I have never met but sense we are in the same boat. Rather than ignore one another, we start talking about such things as where we’re from, how many kids we have, where we live, etc. If we have a lot of time to talk, we might even discuss the kind of work we do, how we met our wives, how long we’ve been married and where we grew up.
Usually when you find a common interest with another person, you tend to want to explore that. For example, if the other person mentions that he likes fishing, I would ask him more about it since I also enjoy fishing. I would mention my interest in both fresh and salt water fishing, and encourage him to talk about his fishing adventures. This example illustrates how common ground can promote conversation, which may then lead into discovering other common areas of interest.
Many candidates mistake this question as an opportunity to outline their resume. This is a serious mistake. The question is designed to encourage answers about your personal interests. This is your opportunity to show the board who you are. Don’t waste time going over your qualifications; rather, use the time to enlighten the board.
By using this opportunity to provide information about where you are from, what you do for fun, and any special accomplishments that you are proud of, hopefully someone on the board will identify with something you have said and will feel a connection.
You never know what that connection could be. It may be that they too played high school or college football. Maybe they are from the same part of the country. Perhaps a board member who plays basketball is looking for players for the basketball team. They may have an interest in auto mechanics. It may be possible that you speak a foreign language and your skills may be needed in certain areas of the community. Another benefit of providing personal information about yourself is that once a rater feels a bond with you, he or she is more likely to give you a higher score. It stands to reason that if no connection has been established, you will have to work that much harder for a good score.
Let’s say the department has an opening for a seat on the fire engine. They have decided to hire a firefighter to fill the vacancy. Since fire departments are always inundated with prospective candidates when they give an exam, they have the luxury of hiring whomever they want. This wide range of choice makes it more likely that they will hire someone they like.
If you are going to be put straight onto a fire engine, our choices are more limited since prior training is a must. In other words, the department may be looking for someone who has already put him or herself through a basic fire academy at the local junior college.
If we are going to put the new hire through a fire academy, we can hire someone with minimal experience. Firefighters would much rather hire someone who has similar interests, values, goals and morals. I’m not saying they’re looking for clones. What they are looking for is someone who fits the profile of a firefighter. They have a much better chance of choosing someone compatible by learning about them personally as well as professionally.
Why do you want to be a firefighter?
Years ago, when I was researching potential career choices, I learned that the father of one of my friends was a firefighter. As I quizzed him about his job, I was struck by how much he loved what he was doing. It was rare to find someone who truly enjoys what he does.
The more I researched the fire service, the more convinced I became that it was the right choice for me. Since then I have visited many fire stations and have gone on several ride-alongs. The reasons I want to become a firefighter are numerous. They include the following:
I enjoy helping people. It gives me great pleasure and it would be very fulfilling to have a profession in which I was able to help people every day.
I would like to be part of a team that solves problems in the community. Whether it is a fire, flood, hazardous material spill, or medical emergency, it feels good to know that citizens can rely on the fire department to help solve their problems.
Being a role model in the community is also important to me. I know children look up to firefighters and I feel we have an obligation to be there for them. I realize the importance of having a smile on my face and being respectful at all times. I also know that firefighters volunteer their time to promote good will within the community. I feel this is a vital part of a firefighter’s job. What also appeals to me is the camaraderie that develops in the fire station. Living and working together for 24-hours at a time allows firefighters to develop some incredibly strong bonds.
I like the challenges that a day at the fire station can bring. Even though our on-duty days are planned out, plans can be interrupted at a moment’s notice for an emergency response.
Since I am a problem solver, I would thrive on contributing my problem-solving skills to the team. But I know if I’m having difficulty solving a problem, I would be able to rely on the other crewmembers to come up with a solution. The amount of shared knowledge among firefighters is tremendous.
I know being a firefighter will provide many opportunities for learning. There is a tremendous amount of information that a firefighter must learn in order to become competent in his or her job. It would be up to me to set a goal and study hard to achieve that goal. Once I have mastered the roles and responsibilities of a firefighter, I know that I will have many opportunities to test for more challenging roles such as paramedic, engineer, lieutenant or captain.
I like working with my hands. I know the fire service uses a myriad of specialized power, hydraulic and hand tools. I know the community will always need firefighters. It is comforting to know that firefighters rarely get laid off. I like the benefits package offered by the fire department. I currently have to pay for healthcare benefits out of my own pocket. I know that healthcare and retirement benefits are part of the fire department’s employment benefits package. The fire department pays good salaries, which will help me provide for my family.
The fire department’s flexible schedule would allow me to continue my education and also frees up more time for family activities such as coaching my daughter’s soccer team.
I like fighting fire. It is exciting and challenging to arrive on scene and perform hose lays, throw ladders, and rescue people. What a great sense of accomplishment that would be.
Since I am interested in medical calls, I would enjoy being an EMT. If the opportunity ever came up, I would like to consider being a paramedic.
It always amazes me how unprepared candidates are for this basic question. Invariably, when faced with this question, they are usually stumped for an answer. This is the easiest question of all since there is really no right or wrong answer. The panel is trying to determine what your motivation is for wanting to become a firefighter.
Do you believe firefighters have a lot of free time and make good money? If this is your primary motivation, you are in for a rude awakening. If those are your first two answers you are unlikely to get a job in the fire service. If you do manage to get a job with that perception in mind, you will probably have difficulty during your initial training.
These are just a few examples of why candidates want to become firefighters. I suggest you write the reasons that motivate YOU to become a firefighter. When asked the question in an interview, it is important that you not try to remember what you have written down, but rather speak from the heart. If you truly have thought about it, the answer will come naturally. It is discouraging to listen to someone try to figure out the answer to the question during the course of the interview. On the other hand, it is refreshing to listen to a candidate who has given a great deal of thought as to why he or she wants to be a firefighter. Also, try to avoid using “canned” (rehearsed) answers. As a rater, it is discouraging to hear a candidate try to repeat what someone has instructed him or her to say. It is important to speak from the heart, rather than try to parrot some catchy phrase that you learned in an interview class.
Raters usually volunteer to be on the oral boards. As a general rule, most firefighters really enjoy their job. A candidate who demonstrates enthusiasm for the fire service will most likely strike a chord with the raters. If the raters love their job, you can bet they will be looking for firefighters who will also appreciate the job.
Remember, evaluators want to give you a good score. It is up to you to give them a reason to do so.