Finding Jobs in Fire Protection

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Very few thrills equal the feeling one gets upon being accepted into the ranks of the fire service. It is an old and honorable profession that sets and keeps very high standards for its members. To become a part of that experience is reserved for a very small segment of our society.

Before you can feel that excitement you have to get hired. The job of protecting life and property can be a very demanding one; getting hired in order to follow that life goal is often even harder. Becoming a firefighter almost never happens by accident. One must actively pursue a fire service career. There are jobs to be found, but the competition for every position is keen.

For almost every job in the fire service spectrum, there are at least three distinct areas that relate to your finding a job that will meet your needs. These areas are application for openings, testing criteria for the different jobs, and the selection of candidates from those who pass the test. The task of finding a job involves understanding each of these processes and determining how to stay involved in the process long enough to get hired.


The best place to start is in your own back yard. The vast majority of jobs in fire protection are local. So you have to tune into the various means that are used to recruit for job openings. When we use the term recruiting, it has to be refined a little bit. Seldom do firefighting agencies have to go out and find candidates; when a fire agency says that it is recruiting, it usually means that it is accepting applications.

In most people's vocabulary, the word recruiting implies a widespread search. In the fire service recruiting usually means selecting new recruits from the people who have already indicated an interest by making themselves available. There are exceptions to this, especially in areas that have been actively involved in dealing with discrimination and minority hiring requirements. Generally, however, fire agencies do not have to go out and make widespread searches to locate interested parties.

In the urbanized and industrialized areas, fire agencies usually conduct entrance level tests once a year. This means that a person must be available when that test is given or miss the opportunity for employment. Many communities avoid this problem by maintaining a list of interested individuals in their personnel departments.

Therefore, a person interested in a job in a local fire agency should visit all local fire service agencies and determine how to be put on such a list. In the smaller communities, the departments often have the candidates fill out an employment application and put it on file right then.

Sometimes people take the process of filling out an application lightly. But if you are interested enough in the job to take a test for it, you should be interested enough in it to make a good first impression. Fill out the application completely. No blank spaces, no unanswered questions. Do it very neatly; it is not necessary that an application be typed, but it should be legible.

In the larger communities the number of candidates is often so large that keeping all of those applications on hire is a problem. These agencies have the interested party fill out an "interest card."

An interest card looks a lot like a postcard. It consists of a person's name, address, and phone number. Candidates fill out the information themselves. When the department is testing for the position, the card is mailed to the applicant. Usually the interest card will be accompanied by additional instructions about filing applications or appearing for the test date.

There are problems with both the application and interest card systems. It is the responsibility of the interested party to keep the fire agency informed of such things as a change of address or employment status. Most agencies will not spend much time trying to track a person down. If the card or test information comes back "addressee unknown," the card or envelope goes into the wastebasket.

The advantage of this type of system is that a person can be on a large number of lists simultaneously without causing a problem. It is an excellent idea to get your name on as many interest lists for tests as possible. In some highly urbanized areas, a person can be on dozens of potential testing lists. In other areas, the selection may be more limited. In both cases it is a very good idea to get on every list possible.

Remember, this is not the type of job for which a person can go and apply directly. It is not uncommon for a department to have hundreds of candidates show up to take out the first applications. In many of the larger cities, they will announce an opening date and a limited number of applications. Candidates often have to set up a form of vigil just to get to the stage of getting applications. There have been cases where candidates have had to wait in line for periods up to forty-eight hours just to get to fill out an application.

Sometimes a person has to go through a battery or series of tests before learning how to become a successful candidate. Take as many tests as possible, so that your chance of success increases.

One other suggestion that seems to help candidates is to get a friend or companion with similar interests to take the tests with you. Having a person that you can relate to is helpful in the preparation phase of testing. Two or more individuals competing tend to raise each other's performance levels. It also helps to have someone to discuss tests with.


If the local market is limited to possible openings, you might have to broaden your horizons somewhat. It is not unknown for a person interested in fire protection to send out postcards to a whole segment of a state in order to get to the testing phase. The only limit to your search for job opportunities in local fire protection is your own resources in time and money to compete. Because of the fact that competition is such a keen factor, most fire agencies don't all give their examinations on the same day anyway. Additionally, many fire agencies set up their examinations on Saturdays to give the greatest number of people the chance to compete.


Another avenue that should be pursued regarding job opportunities in the local situation is that of training programs for "paid call/reserve" firefighters. Instead of conducting tests on large unknown quantities of candidates, many modern fire departments direct pre-employment candidates to training programs that give them some testing skills. Many community or junior colleges offer classes to prepare applicants for the testing process. Such programs also serve as a resource to locate new job opportunities.

The paid-call or reserve firefighter program is often found in an area that is either undergoing a transition from the volunteer to full time paid fire force or one needing reserves to supplement the paid forces. In those areas, a person can often get into a part time role that leads to full time employment. Often these programs closely resemble the internship or apprenticeship programs found in other trades and occupations. Membership in these types of organizations is not an automatic inroad to employment, however. These programs are also used to weed out people who have a borderline interest. The number of candidates, once again, often exceeds the number of jobs available.


In some areas of the country there are "Apprenticeship" programs for which a person can sign up. The Apprenticeship program is part of a series of pre-employment training programs developed jointly by the International Fire Fighters and the International Fire Chiefs Associations. There are actually four different programs: Firefighter, Fire-Medic, Paramedic, and Emergency Medical Technician. The way the apprenticeship program works is that these two organizations form a Joint Apprenticeship Council (JAC) in an area. This JAC has funding to pay an apprentice a small stipend while he or she is going to school.

The program is funded from a combination of local, state, and federal agencies. The training costs are often funded by a combination of local and community college funds.

An apprentice is required to complete a three-year program. The first part of the program consists of the recruit academy. At that time, the apprentice is actually an employee of the JAC. Upon graduation from the academy, he or she becomes indentured to a specific fire agency and is then given the basic wage of that agency and becomes a member of a fire company. For the rest of the three-year agreement he or she is required to complete a minimum number of hours of training per year.

After completion of the three-year program, the candidate can become a regular full time member of the agency that he or she has been serving. Apprentices can be removed from service any time during the three-year period if they fail to meet the criteria of the fire agency.


So far we have only dealt with application at the local level. What about those state and federal agencies that employ fire protection personnel? How do they recruit for their employees? Well, the song is very much the same, but the chorus is sung by a larger choir. The number of candidates for state and federal forestry jobs greatly exceeds the demand.

But someone has to be hired, and they do it in very much the same way as local government does. They get a list of candidates and conduct tests of them. The way to get started in this area is to get a listing of the state and federal agencies and send each of them a letter requesting job announcements. Once again, one cannot send off one letter and expect immediate success. The correspondence should be directed to every agency with similar job potential.

These jobs are almost always seasonal in nature. That's good and bad. It's good in that there is a turnover every year, especially in areas where many of the seasonal are college students. It's bad in that there is a very narrow hiring window, if you are not selected during that very short period there is a long wait until the next time.

Some of the job markets at the state and federal levels discussed in the previous chapters are highly selective. You must be prepared to actively seek them out. Examples of these jobs might be something like the hire agencies that protect military installations. Sometimes these agencies will place job announcements in the local newspaper. Sometimes they will post job announcements in the local post office.


Some of the specialized jobs mentioned in previous chapters really do not recruit. They hire from a labor force very different from the firefighting agencies. Examples of what we are referring to here are fire extinguisher companies, automatic sprinkler companies, and fire alarm companies. These fields require very specific skills, such as knowledge of electronics and mechanics. Therefore, they do their recruiting among people who already have the necessary training in the technical and mechanical skills they need. Many of the people who enter this trade come from other, related trades. Much of this area of job-opportunity involves installing, testing, and maintaining built-in fire protection equipment. The job opportunities are often displayed in the normal fashion of looking for skilled technicians-in newspapers and employment notices.

One of the advantages of this area is that there are often part time or temporary jobs in these fields. Many people who aspire to fire service careers get their first job-experience by working in the private sector while testing for fire departments.

The major exception to this area is the process used to select the fire protection engineer. Because of the educational requirements of this job and the length of that education process, coupled with a shortage of good fire protection engineers, these people are often individually recruited. It's not uncommon for the graduating class from a good fire protection school to have a list of potential jobs instead of having to look for a job.


Getting a job in the fire service is a lot like running the high hurdles on a track team. One has to clear each obstacle to the selection process before getting to move on to the next one. The normal testing process to get into the firefighting area of fire protection consists of at least three separate testing procedures. A candidate has to pass each of them separately in order to become eligible to be hired. These steps consist of a written examination, a physical agility examination, and an oral interview. After getting on a list to be hired, there are three more steps: a medical examination, acceptance oral, and the probationary period.

The Written Examination

The written examination is just exactly what it sounds like-a series of written questions to measure a candidate’s ability to comprehend the work of the fire service. In the past, many of these examinations were difficult to prepare for because they were not well structured. Today, especially after the work that has been done on equal opportunity employment and fair employment practices at the local, state, and federal levels, these examinations are usually closely related to the job.

This means that the questions are aimed at determining if a candidate has the ability to learn the skills of the fire service. The questions relate to a person's ability to comprehend, rather than to knowledge of any specific subject area.

It is not uncommon for the testing agency to give a candidate a booklet or pamphlet on the subject of fire protection as a reading assignment prior to a written test. The candidate will be given instructions that indicate that test questions will be derived from that specific material. This is legal because it tests a person's ability to learn from a specific body of knowledge. Then when all candidates are tested, they all start with the same basic information.

Frequently, these entrance examinations are prepared by private or government agencies that specialize in the selection process. It is not uncommon for a person to take the entrance examination for several different agencies in the same geographical area and find that the same examination is given. The reason that this can occur is that fire agencies often use standard examinations to assure testing validity. Another reason that it can occur is that it is cheaper to purchase exams that can be used over and over again than it is to prepare a one-time examination.

This is an advantage and a disadvantage to a test-taker. It is an advantage in that a person can become increasingly familiar with the test instrument and get better and better scores. It is a disadvantage in that the same thing applies to all of the other candidates too. If you are not getting better scores faster than they, you lose the competitive edge.

Typically, the written examination will consist of two-hundred questions. It will normally take two or three hours. The results of that test may be available in as little as a few days or as long as a month. The difference is based on the practices and procedures of the local agency regarding the scoring of the test papers. If the test is made and scored locally, the time-frame is short. If it is a standardized test and has to go back to a central test facility to be scored, it takes longer.

In most cases, the results of the written examination drastically reduce the number of candidates allowed to move on to the next test phase. A cut-off point is often established to limit the number of candidates to a manageable number. It can be as high as eighty percent. In some cases, the testing agency will use a standard pass-point, usually around seventy percent. In either case, the written portion results in the elimination of some candidates. While there is no average to relate to this occurrence, usually at least ten percent of the candidates are eliminated here.


After these written scores have been compiled, the candidates are notified to appear for a physical agility test. It tests a candidate's ability to perform the various strength and maneuver activities that a firefighter might be asked to perform in the line of duty. These tests have to be job-related too. In the past, fire candidates were asked to perform some unreasonable tests like hoisting railroad rails and climbing rope ladders to prove agility. Today the tests include such things as a person's ability to pull a certain amount of fire hose, climb a certain height of ladder, wear an air tank in an enclosed area, and complete a series of physical activities without being totally exhausted.

In the physical agility portion of the testing process, candidates are sometimes given a competitive score that reflects their speed or success at completing the various evolutions. In some testing processes, a person is merely given a pass or fails mark on the test. In either case, the result is that the list of candidates gets a little smaller once again.


The third test employed by fire agencies is an oral interview. This is basically a discussion with the candidates to evaluate their preparation and potential for the job. Usually the oral board consists of three to five experienced fire officers or personnel officers. Candidates are brought singly into an interview room where they are asked a series of questions.

Most of these interview processes are based on a standard interview. All of the candidates are asked the same questions. When the candidates are interviewed, the examiners are limited to asking questions that relate to the qualifications for the job. They are not allowed to ask questions about ethnic, religious, marital, or political background.

The grading of this process is based on comparing the responses of the different candidates to the same questions. While there are no standard answers to the questions, the experienced fire officers can make judgments as to the candidate’s qualifications for the job. Most fire agencies are looking for characteristics that are job-related-such as poise, calmness, ability to express oneself, and ability to follow instructions. The oral board often ranks the candidates from the best to the least qualified in these areas.

The oral interview is the best opportunity you have to sell yourself to the department. The best candidates are just as prepared for this part of the process as they are the written or physical agilities tests. Preparation for the oral interview includes proper dress, a thorough knowledge of the local department's needs and desires, and a sense of self-confidence. If there is any one thing that must be emphasized about oral interviews, it is BE YOURSELF.

The interviewers are trying to find out who that person is on the other side of the table. They are experts at assessing people. If you try to bluffan oral board or try to create a false image, you will probably do poorly. Instead of trying to please artificially, just be yourself. Do everything you can to develop poise, tact, and good verbal skills. If you have enthusiasm, self-confidence, and ability to organize your thoughts, you will do well on oral interviews.


Some departments prepare an eligibility list, after the basic examinations are completed. This is a listing of the candidates in the ranking order of their cumulative scores from the written, agility, and oral examinations. This practice varies a great deal from area to area, so it must be looked at in a local situation to make any judgments.

The eligibility list is usually good for a period of twelve to twenty four months after the date the list is posted or distributed. This is done so that the departments will not have to conduct tests too frequently and yet not so far apart that candidates will move away before being selected. Usually the list will be exhausted from the highest to the lowest scores. Some departments have policies that the department does not have to follow the list in the selection process. They believe that the list is basically only a qualification and that one score does not mean a better candidate than another.

In either case, getting on the eligibility list is still not the same as being hired for the position. Typically the department will select a group of potential employees from the list and put them through another series of tests. These tests are not competitive in nature, but rather are to determine actual fitness for employment.


The first of these types of exams is a medical examination. Sometimes it is called a physical exam too. This is not a scored test. It is an examination by a medical doctor to see if the candidate can perform the job without undue potential for injury on the job. Many fire departments use standard physical exams based on National Fire Protection Association's Standard 1001. This document identifies minimum standards for such things as cardio-vascular fitness, skeletal conformity (backs and joints), color-blindness, and other vital characteristics.

The physical examination is frequently an area where candidates are badly disappointed in their quest for the job. Many young people have gone all of the way through the testing process to find out that they have a congenital heart or back defect to disqualify them. The only way to avoid that disappointment is to make sure that you have checked to see what the physical standards are and have yourself checked out by your own physician. Any physician can read NFPA 1001 and determine if there will be a potential problem.


Another testing process used by some agencies is called a background check. This is a check of the candidate's arrest, credit, and military records. Many departments have discontinued these checks as being discriminatory, but they are still in practice in some areas. The purpose of this clearance is to evaluate fitness for the role of being charged with other people's property and lives. In addition, the clearance is used to make sure that the candidates do not have anything on their record to indicate potential problems performing the basic tasks of the job. An example of this would be a person with a bad driving record who could be prevented from keeping a driver's license: that would affect their ability to work.

The last hurdle that a candidate often has to clear is called the "Chiefs oral." In smaller departments, this is actually handled by the Chief of the Department. In larger departments, this task falls to one of the ranking officers charged with the responsibility to select personnel. The purpose of this oral is to clarify between the department and the candidate just exactly what is expected of the new employee and to see if there are any last-minute questions or problems.


If you have been successful to this point, you may actually get hired! You could be an excellent candidate and never get the job because of budget cutbacks. A person can "set" on a list for a long time waiting for her or his number to come up. The ratio of individuals that enter this process compared to those actually hired in the end is about one to twenty. It is not easy to become a firefighter, and in the next decade or so the selection process is likely to get even tougher.

As the old saying goes, "luck favors the mind prepared." That means that the best way to assure success in getting selected is to be as well mentally and physically prepared as you can be. One does not get into the fire service simply from desire; there must be a lot of time spent preparing for the competition of the selection process.


And just when you were thinking that it was over, the fire service has one more big obstacle for you. Firefighters are not considered as having completed the selection process until they have completed their first year's probation. That means that part of the selection process is the training and shift work that you have to perform during the first twelve months on the job.

A lot of the candidates fail here too. The percentage of failure is probably down around two to five percent, but that is still enough to be concerned about. The reason that this probation period is considered to be such a vital part of the selection process is the necessity to evaluate a person's compatibility with others in a living situation and to see how the person deals with stress. There are simply no good tests to screen candidates for those characteristics.

During a candidate's probation, he or she will be tested on several different levels-technical, physical, emotional and personal. Sometimes the department will have a very formal evaluation system for probationary employees. It may include written tests of materials that a probationary firefighter is supposed to learn. In other cases, the evaluation will be much more informal. Usually, however, a probationary candidate will know how well they are doing by their interaction with co-workers. In the atmosphere of the fire company, problem people stand out quickly.

The testing process is long and hard. I have known people for whom it took as long as 5 years to be successful in getting through this series of obstacles to employment. One young student of mine took over forty-five separate entrance tests before he was selected. Today he is a captain in a very progressive fire department.

The implication of this testing process is two-fold. The fire service is looking for good people not mediocre ones and the testing process really reduces a group of potential candidates to the most qualified ones. The second implication is that a person can be very well qualified and still take a long time to get to the point of selection. A candidate must have a sense of purpose and dedication to survive the struggle.
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