For an aspiring firefighter, there is no easy way to obtain the dream career. As they say, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it." There is no short cut or fast track to become a firefighter, regardless of what anyone may tell you.
Many of you remember my article "10 Must do Things to Become a Firefighter." Now, it is time to update it with 10 more must-dos. Here they are in no specific order.
1. Prepare for the written examination.
It amazes me how many individuals cannot pass the entry-level hiring process written examination. Or if they can pass it, are unable to score in the mid-to-high 90 percent range.
Although 70 percent is the standard pass point, it is common for departments to only take the top scores to proceed to the next step of the process. Many think they did awesome by passing the written examination with 75 percent only to find out the department only wants candidates with scores of 95 percent and above to continue.
A written examination by itself is not going to tell a department who the best candidate is; it is only one of several items used to weed out candidates who are not fully prepared for the position. If you're not consistently scoring in the mid-to-high 90s, find your weaknesses and do what it takes to increase the scores in those sections.
Also, fire departments typically require cadets to maintain an 80 percent average on all written examinations in the recruit academy — with tests typically occurring at the start of every day. Not maintaining at least an 80 percent average may lead to termination, something that occurs more than you can imagine.
2. Be in the best physical and mental shape.
Face it, most people in the United States are overweight, out of shape, or both — including many within the fire service. Firefighting is a very physically and mentally demanding career that requires candidates to be on the top of their game.
If you are not physically and mentally prepared for the rigors of the recruit academy, you're going to find yourself in a world of hurt. I've learned over the years that when either the physical or mental shape becomes an issue during a recruit academy, the other will soon follow.
That means if someone is having problems performing the physical aspects of the job, their frustration and their knowing it may lead to termination will also affect their mental performance. It's like an athlete who cannot recover from a botched play. Eventually, the recruit becomes a train wreck, leading to either resignation or termination.
Besides all of the physical skills you'll be performing at the academy, you'll also be performing physical fitness. Some departments have recruits run several miles a few times a week and do a number of push ups, pull ups and other related workouts. Have a solid workout plan before you get hired as a firefighter so it is a smooth transition into the academy and your career.
3. Prepare and practice for the oral interview.
In most departments, your oral interview score will make up all or an overwhelming majority of your final ranking on the hiring list. Scoring well on the oral interview doesn't prove you'll be a great firefighter; it just means you can talk a great game.
However, you need to talk a great game to make the final cut, and then you also need to walk the walk to prove you were as great as you said you were.
Use the Internet to research the most common oral interview questions and write down your possible answers. Then rehearse answering those questions, timing yourself in the process to ensure you're not spending more than two minutes on any answer — unless it's the opening statement, which you can spend up to four minutes to answer.
To rehearse the answers, arrange mock interviews with company officers or chief officers who you've built relationships with (see item 8 for more on networking).
Make a video recording of the rehearsal and analyze your performance to ensure you're not doing anything inappropriate or distracting. More importantly, ensure that you're conveying passion, enthusiasm and portraying yourself as someone the board would like to work with and who would fit into their culture.
4. Have a strong character.
Most departments will hire for character and positive attitude, and train for firefighting skills. This is something most candidates don't get; they focus too much on packing their resume with certifications and qualifications and forget that we don't hire resumes, we hire people. We can teach many to perform the basic firefighting skills.
However, we can't teach many to have a positive attitude or have outstanding character traits that should have been instilled in you by your parents, guardians, family members and friends.
5. Prepare to perform under stress
Recruit academies do not test for character, but reveal it. Our academy coordinator puts this sign on the academy classroom wall to remind our newly hired firefighters we will get to know them very intimately over the 16 weeks of the academy.
The oral board that interviewed you for 10 or 30 minutes and thought you were the cat's meow only heard you speak of how great you were. We get to now put you through 16 weeks of a very challenging and at times stressful recruit academy that will require you to perform as an individual and as a team member, something many are not prepared to do.
It's amazing how some perform under stress: some do a great job, some excel, some scream at their teammates, some cannot perform, and some even snap at their instructors, thus showing their true colors. It is common for a fire department to terminate firefighters in a recruit academy for attitude or behavioral issues, even when they are passing their tests with at least 80 percent.
Some may think "they're passing their tests, so what?" If someone is going to be a jerk or not be able to handle the stress, he will not be an asset to his crew or the public; he also will more than likely be a problem for the rest of his career.
6. Obtain a Firefighter I certification.
While most fire departments don't require Firefighter I, I strongly encourage all candidates to complete a fire academy at a college prior to getting hired by a fire department.
That's because many college academies are tougher than some paid fire department recruit academies. And if you can handle a college academy, you have a great chance at handling a recruit academy.
A college academy lets you make mistakes and even allows you to fail and come back again and again if needed. Fire department academies don't provide that same amount of patience and understanding. You either cut it or you're out.
7. Become a paramedic.
In many departments require candidates to be paramedics, even for a firefighter position. Being a paramedic will also lower the numbers of your competitors, since there are not many out there.
8. Network with those in the fire service.
If you haven't figured it out by now, getting ahead in life is not always due to luck or hard work. Many times it's because of timing, opportunity, as well as how much those you know believe you will be a good fit for the position.
Networking doesn't mean sucking up or kissing butt. It means getting to know others who may assist you in some capacity and who you may be able to assist at some point.
Being able to play nice in the sandbox with others, and not taking your toys and leaving is a skills some don't possess, and it definitely shows in their ability to get ahead in life or even stay afloat in their current position.
9. Know yourself inside and out.
Be able to articulate to an oral board who you are, how you have prepared for the job, where you want be in the next five and 10 years, why you want the job, what you can bring to the job, what you can bring to the department, what you can bring to the community, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what your values are, what you believe in, and basically anything else that relates to you.
Sadly, many candidates do a terrible job of selling themselves — being able to talk about themselves and why they would be a great fit for the position. If you don't know yourself and can't talk about yourself, who can?
10. Develop good mechanical ability.
Years ago, most fire department candidates came from the trades. Today, very few candidates come with this experience. However, the job of a firefighter has not changed in that mechanical ability and trades experience are still required, given all of the hand tools and power tools we use.
If you don't have trades experience, find someone who does and learn the basics of hand tools and power tools, as well as mechanical ability. Most fire departments have mechanical-ability questions on their written examination.
And you'll need to have a basic understanding of mechanical ability to pass the recruit academy, pass the probationary period, and more importantly, gain the respect and credibility of your co-workers and supervisors. A great website to learn more about mechanical ability is www.howstuffworks.com
It isn't easy becoming a full-time firefighter. However, talk to the overwhelming majority of those working in the fire service and they will tell you it was worth the time and effort they put in to become a firefighter. Good luck.