Qualifications and Personal Assessment

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Aspiring to a position in the fire service and actually being qualified for the job are two different things. Each year many people start to pursue a fire service career. Some are doomed to failure from the start; they do not know that there are definite qualifications for each fire service position. Without examining those qualifications, a person can take a lot of dead-end roads while competing for the various jobs. In this chapter, we will discuss a few of the basic qualifications to pursue this occupation. As a candidate for a fire service career, you should take care to assess your ability to meet those qualifications.

Today, as never before in the history of fire service, the people who recruit and select fire service personnel are challenged by the need to be fair to each candidate. This challenge is made even greater by the responsibility to recruit and select only the best-qualified people to protect the interests of the public. The job of recruiting and selecting more efficient and effective candidates requires an in-depth understanding of what kind of person the fire service is looking for.

Firefighter Or Civilian Positions



Fire service agencies often employ people in both combat and non-combat roles. There are distinct differences between the traits, skills, and abilities that are required to be a successful candidate in the two different realms. On the other hand, there are very strong similarities in the motivation of people who select fire service careers, the primary motivation being strong desire to serve people. The modern fire service needs people in both areas in order to fulfill the mission of saving lives and property.

Equal Opportunity Employment

At one time the fire service was considered by many to be a white, male-dominated occupation. Over the years, both the federal and state governments have adopted laws that prevent discrimination based on race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap, or sex. Most fire service agencies recognized very early that to have hiring policies that discriminate can create stress in the community and work against the interests of the public.

Therefore, most fire agencies have worked hard to eliminate bias from their selection processes. This does not mean that it's easy to qualify. It means that the basis for selecting candidates is objectively job-related, rather than subjective. The criteria used to select candidates in most agencies are fair and based on the knowledge, skills, and abilities essential to success in a specific job.

This makes it easier on candidates too. It gives one an opportunity to review the anticipated behaviors that the testing agency is looking for, before being tested on them. One can determine in advance whether he or she has the basic qualifications for the position. This information can be easily obtained in advance of the testing procedure. They are most often written in the job announcement under a section called "Examples of Duties."

Another source of very valuable information on anticipated behavior is the section called "Desirable Qualifications."

Women in the Service

As a result of pressure from equal opportunity employment organizations, there are many more women and minorities in the fire service today. In the past some selection processes were unfair. The ones that have been developed to test candidates now are fair, but not necessarily easy. People must be qualified to get the positions.

During the 1970's, qualified women entered almost every realm of the fire service. There are female combat firefighters on duty in cities ranging from the smallest to the largest. The acceptance of the female firefighter has not been easy, however, because the selection process was fair and because the candidates were qualified, some of them made it. Others did not. The difference in many cases was the preparation the candidate had before taking the test. They knew what they were getting into and they were prepared for it.

Women have accomplished a great deal in non-combat roles too. In Fountain Valley, California, the Fire Marshal is a woman named Lynne Michealis. She worked her way up in the bureau from a fire inspector. Other places, such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fullerton, California, have put women in positions of responsibility. Women have also been promoted to such positions as administrative analyst in some of the larger departments.

Women have also advanced in forestry firefighting. Several women have successfully performed fire combat duties as part of "hot shot" crews (hand crews that fight fire in very close quarters).

Minorities in the Service

The same things that used to keep women out of the fire service used to keep some minorities out. However, the question of minority employment has not been nearly as much of an issue. As a matter of fact, minorities have been actively involved in the fire service for quite a long time. The late Fire Chief James Shern of the Pasadena, California fire department was a black man and a fine fire chief. He was rewarded for his competency by being elected president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Minority employment sometimes suffers in the fire service because members of some minority groups do not actively seek employment in this field. Most fire agencies are very interested in working to increase their minority recruitment. At the same time, they are interested in keeping the standards and qualifications at the highest possible level.

The most important point to remember here is that the qualifications for the position are what determine who gets the job. It is a competitive field of endeavor. With the emphasis on job-related criteria, a person's sex, color, or nationality should not make any difference.

Examples of Duties

The examples of duties for a entry level firefighter might read as follows:

Responds to fire and medical emergencies and follows instructions of superior officers or standard operating procedures in the laying of hose lines and raising of ladders, performing acts of rescue or ventilation, extinguishing fires or participating in clean-up operations, cleans, maintains, and inspects equipment and fire stations, participates in training sessions and drills, participates in the inspection of buildings for purposes of enforcing fire regulations, performs routine investigation of emergencies to determine the cause, handles radio and telephone communications, drives rescue and ambulance vehicles when required, performs such other duties as may be required to protect life and property.

Sounds like a tall order, doesn't it? That's what is expected of a firefighter in most fire agencies today. The extent of many of the duties varies according to the nature of the community, but they are basically the same everywhere.

As you read those tasks, you probably thought, "I don't know how to do those things." That's okay. The examples of duties in a job description are describing what a person will have to do after being selected, trained, and assigned. They represent things that a person will have to learn to do, not things that they have to know how to do.

Note the emphasis on the physical aspects of the job. This will be used in setting up certain aspects of the testing process. The physical agility and the medical examination are based on this requirement. While a person cannot be graded on how to pull hose, it is valid to see if he or she has the strength to pick up several sections and carry it for a short distance.

Desirable Qualifications

A typical entry level fire fighter's desirable qualifications announcement might look like this:

The candidate must have the ability to learn the theory and principles of modern fire protection; the ability to apply knowledge gained in training to practical operations under routine and emergency conditions; ability to read and understand written instructions and training materials, maps, diagrams, and schematics for content and meaningfulness to assigned tasks; ability to adopt quick, reasonable, and effective courses of action under emergency conditions; ability to establish and maintain effective relationships with others.

These are things which the candidate needs to be concerned with. These criteria will be used in setting up the written examination and possibly an oral examination.

What About You Personally?

You've already decided to look into the fire service as a career or you wouldn't be this far along in this book. The big question is "should you be in the fire service?" What kind of a person makes a good candidate for this occupation? How can you assess your chances of employment before you waste a lot of time filling out applications and visiting fire agencies? According to a study done by the Minneapolis Civil Service Commission "firefighters that did better on the job were likely to be organized, dependable, hard-working, and cautious and followed the directions of others." That may sound a little dull, but it is accurate.

The fire profession is highly dependent upon teamwork and dependability. People who fit in well are those who have developed skills in these areas. As a fire science and regional occupation instructor, I have had the opportunity to talk to and interview thousands of young men and women interested in the fire service. Some of them have made it into the service; others never will because they do not recognize that the fire service demands a lot of its candidates. Desire to enter the service is not enough. You must develop a competitive edge.

Basics

Among the most basic of knowledge, skills, and abilities is the need to know your physical limitations. Many of the functions of the firefighter require peak physical demands. Strength alone is not enough. Agility and endurance are needed, as well. The physical aspects are less important in staff jobs or as a person promotes in the fire service, but physical skills are paramount at the entry level in suppression jobs.

Physical Fitness

One of the best ways to prepare you in this area is to engage in organized sports activities. Generally, those sports which require combinations of speed, strength, endurance, and teamwork are the best training grounds; sports like baseball, basketball, soccer, football, and hockey are excellent for developing motor skills and coordination.

As you may recall from the Minneapolis study, firefighters need to be capable of accepting directions easily. That comes from team sports also. A fire company is very much like a small sports team. Most firefighters continue to participate in sports in their spare time and many fire departments to have sports teams or engage in sports activity as part of a physical fitness program.

As a potential candidate, you are well advised to do everything you can to get in shape and stay in shape. Sometimes a person cannot engage in team sports because of family responsibilities, but one can almost always develop some sort of physical fitness program. It is far better to start the process as early as possible as to try to get in shape for a competitive test.

An entry level test in the physical area may include such things as picking up fire hose and carrying or dragging it for a distance. That may not sound like much, but fire hose can weigh a lot when it includes brass couplings and several connected sections. The test may include such tasks as removing a large ladder from the side of an existing piece of fire apparatus or picking up a large fan called a smoke ejector and hanging it from a window.

Sometimes tests include raising the fly (a section of a ladder) on a large extension ladder. All of these tests require specific levels of strength. Other types of physical tests may include having candidates climb a high ladder to determine if they have acrophobia (fear of heights). I know one young man who had worked for three years to get a fire science degree and who failed this test miserably. He came to the test confident in his abilities, but froze at the 50-foot level of an 85-foot aerial. He had never climbed a ladder in his life. He had no idea that he had that kind of fear. Some departments also test candidates for claustrophobia (fear of confinement). This test consists of putting a candidate into a breathing apparatus and blacking out the masks. Then the candidate is asked to perform some physical task. If the fear of confinement is there it becomes quickly evident.

Academic Competence

Someone once said that to be a good firefighter you had to know a little bit about the basics of almost twenty-three different occupations. Firefighters deal in construction, chemistry, electronics, mathematics, law, and medicine almost every day. Basic knowledge of the "Three R's" is essential. You have to have the ability to read, write, and calculate.

That may seem to be obvious, but it isn't. Many potential candidates are excluded in the competitive process because they lack these skills. Literacy is just as important to the modern firefighter as are physical skills. As the fire service moves toward more automation and sophistication in practices and procedures, it will become even more important.

We are not talking about "intelligence." Firefighting does not require a high IQ, it requires normal intelligence and some basic academic skills.

If you are now a high school or college student, it may be very difficult to see how a class in composition is going to relate to the job of a firefighter. But there is a correlation. The first time you have to complete a report for an officer or appear in court to testify about an incident report you will discover the value of good writing. When a firefighter is next to an overturned tanker on the interstate at three o'clock in the morning, it helps to know the difference between the behaviors of liquid and gas. That knowledge may make the difference between a good decision and a dangerous one.

Fire agencies teach their employees these subjects, but if you cannot learn them in school, you may not be able to learn them in the fire service either. The fire service must hire people who can learn quickly.

Master those basics. Don't be fooled by the physical aspects of fire protection. It is a thinking person's profession too. Competition for these jobs is keen. Don't overlook the value of developing competitive skills while still in school. A 'C grade might get you through algebra in your school, but it won't get you the job if someone else has an 'A'. The jobs will go to the people who best demonstrate the required skills.

Many people are lured into complacency in this area because a lot of agencies have dropped high school education as a requirement to take an entry level test. Departments have dropped that requirement in a lot of cases to eliminate discrimination against people who have the skill but lack the diploma. But be careful. The test criteria is still job-related.

It is possible to complete high school and never develop the right skills. It is also possible to drop out of high school and still develop one's skills to a high level.

Don't get a high school or college diploma, get a high school or college education. Maximize your participation in subject areas to give yourself the competitive edge in written examinations.

Background

You should also consider what you can do for yourself in the area of personal background. Some of these things do not sound too significant, but they can be important factors in test competition. A person should strive to maintain good driving, credit, and work records while awaiting the opportunity to test for fire service jobs.

Your driving record isn't really a problem in terms of competition unless it has moving violations on it. Fire personnel are expected to drive a variety of government vehicles. A person with a bad driving record is a poor risk for a department; a serious driving record can result in a candidate being removed from eligibility.

Any type of criminal record is also a liability, especially if it involves theft or narcotics. These can be a real problem because firefighters live in such close quarters that they are vulnerable to theft; lockers are left open when an emergency call comes in and watches and wallets are often in plain view. Narcotics problems are a real conflict because many fire agencies must carry controlled substances as part of their paramedic programs. These drugs are closely controlled, but they are still part of the station environment. Departments are very leery of candidates who have any criminal record.

While none of these areas are examined during the testing period, they are often considered before actual selection begins. Remember the quote from the Minneapolis study that referred to the fact that firefighters tend to be dependable people. The credit and work record is one of the first places in which this behavioral characteristic demonstrates itself.

A person should cultivate a good list of references-not friends, but respected people in the community who can verify a person's character. Classic examples of good references are teachers, counselors, clergymen, businessmen, and local governmental officials. You can acquire a lot of friends and still not have any good references. Most applications today do not ask for references; they are seldom used to exclude a person. But that doesn't mean we need to disregard them. It merely means that we should aspire to them for a different purpose.

By developing a good work record, you will develop job skills. That will help you in the competition. By cultivating good references you will develop people skills and acquire mentoring relationships that will help you compete. A mentor is like a coach or counselor. Many times the people you obtain as references will share with you the insight they have used to become successful themselves. If you obtain a mentor who has fire service experience, that can be invaluable.

PERSONAL TRAITS

We have discussed the potential for physical fitness and academic preparation, but your personal characteristics enter into the process too. You may think that you are a pretty good person; you may be well-liked and even a popular person. Does that qualify you for the fire service? It's a good start, but let's look at some traits that have come from firefighter selection studies.
 
All of the following traits have been identified as characteristic of fire service candidates. As you review the list, ask yourself, "How well do I meet that criterion?"
  1. Thinks and acts quickly

  2. Learns quickly

  3. Adapts to routine duties

  4. Exercises sound judgment

  5. Demonstrates initiative

  6. Acts unselfishly

  7. Exhibits calm under stress

  8. Demontrates mechanical aptitude

  9. Demonstrates resourcefulness and ability to improvise

  10. Demonstrates ability to follow orders and procedures

  11. Is self disciplined

  12. Demonstrates good work habits

  13. Adapts to working under adverse conditions

  14. Gets along with others in a group

  15. Has a sense of personal responsibility
Summary

Not everyone wants to enter the fire service. Not everyone who wants to will be successful. We have discussed a few of the steps you can take to increase your chances of getting into the service. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of candidates who will make it without ever seeing this book, but those of you who do should have an edge on the competition.

Preparation is an important part of building professionalism. While we have explored some of the basic qualifications in this text, some of the criteria will be upgraded in the near future.

Those reading this text should be more sensitive to the act of preparation and therefore be ready for the changes in criteria. Probably the best example of this possibility is the fact that many fire departments are now requiring some levels of pre-entry training for candidates. Some departments even have pre-entry certification requirements. As these concepts gain in momentum, they raise the level of achievement of each generation of the fire service. This raises the professional level of the occupation and puts a burden on the candidate to be prepared.
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