It has been said that a smart man learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others. We all make mistakes and hopefully we learn from them, but learning from others is a much faster and less painful way to better ourselves.
When it comes to learning from someone else's mistakes, no one has more to offer you then I do. I have made many, but I have learned from them, which makes me smart. However, I want you to be truly wise and learn from my mistakes as well as the many others I have observed others make over the years.
Below are what I consider to be the five most common mistakes candidates make.
1. Not stepping out of your comfort zone
Stepping out of your comfort zone is essential to learning and growing as a person and candidate. For some this means overcoming testing or interview phobias. Not doing so can prevent you from applying or testing as frequently as you should. For others it may mean they have found too much comfort in their local volunteer or part-time fire department and become stagnant or simply complacent.
When this happens they don't branch out and look elsewhere for other opportunities. For others it may be not overcoming their shyness and not networking with people in the industry. We all have our comfort zones, some are just more narrow than others. No matter what yours may be or how it may be limiting you, one of the best things you can do is be aware of how it's hurting you and overcome it. Overcome your fears or anxiety and break out of your comfort zone. By doing so you will begin to progress as a person and candidate and new opportunities will surely follow.
2. Putting all your eggs in one basket
A good friend of mine is a great example of how putting all your eggs in one basket may prevent you from getting where you want to be. A department where I once worked as a part-time firefighter had created a new trainee position. This firefighter trainee position was full-time, but temporary and without benefits. It also paid much less then the permanent positions. It was made clear that this was a two-year temporary contract position. I opted to not take the position, as I had just got accepted to UC Davis and thought the timing wasn't right.
I decided to wait and take it in two years when I would have my bachelor's degree finished. A good friend of mine took the position. He already had an AS Degree in Fire Science and during his two years he continued to take classes and achieved his fire officer certification. He was getting told by some members of the department that this position was going to be turned into a permanent position and the trainee position was going to be eliminated. He enjoyed his crew and got very comfortable there thinking he was going to get a permanent spot. He stopped testing with other departments.
After two years the position was extended for another year and he thought this was a sure sign that his co-workers were right and he was going to have a permanent slot soon. He was wrong. After the third year the trainees were released and he was out of a job. Times were tough and no one was hiring in this area. He didn't want to leave the area and ended up working back at a deli he had worked at before. With three years of full-time experience, an AS Degree and his state fire officer certifications, he was now making sandwiches again.
He had put all his eggs in one basket and it didn't pan out. There is no doubt that if he had spent his three years trying to land a permanent job, he would have. He was a great candidate and great person. Discouraged from the fire service and needing a paycheck, he found employment elsewhere and has made a very successful career for himself in another field. He does miss the fire service and he has some regrets.
I see many candidates hold out for their dream department and not test elsewhere, or hold out for a position in the department they volunteer at. Loyalty is great, but you can be loyal while still looking out for your best interest and pursuing full-time permanent work.
3. Not understanding your place, and not understanding the fire service environment
Many new candidates do not know how the fire service environment works and as a result shoot themselves in the foot right off the bat. Understanding what is expected of you before you even start is essential for success. I will not explain in detail here, but will instead refer you to past articles for more information on the fire service environment. If you do not know what I mean, then you need to do some reading. Knowing your environment is one thing, knowing your place in that environment is another.
There is no one lower on the fire service food chain then a firefighter candidate. This must be clearly understood by the candidate. Many seem to think that coming in and trying to be one of the guys is a good approach. It rarely is. Getting too comfortable, too soon, can be a big mistake.
So is trying to show how much experience you have or how much you know. It's never a good idea to try to express your knowledge, skills and abilities. Be confident, but be humble. Whether you are a lateral coming with years of experience, or fresh out of an academy, humbleness is an essential trait.
Observe the group dynamic, but don't try to become a part of it when you are doing your ride alongs, or visiting stations, or interacting with department personnel at any time. Know your place and stay there. A wise crew will suck an unsuspecting candidate right in and test them by making them feel very comfortable. The unsuspecting candidate doesn't realize they're under the microscope and the crew is trying to bring out their true colors and personality by welcoming them in this way.
I've seen it dozens of times. Always know your place, work hard, be humble and don't try to fit in too fast. You shouldn't be nervous, just cautious and keenly aware of your environment and what is expected of you in this environment.
4. Lack of academic efforts
If the fire service required a masters degree would you get one? If not, you're not alone. Many great firefighters were not good students and were drawn to the profession, by the job duties, as well as the lack of formal education that is required for such an outstanding career.
However, an education is one thing that can help you stand out from the masses and will benefit you greatly once you do get hired. It may also provide you with a plan B if you do not get hired, or while you're waiting for a job offer. In my career I have seen many firefighters who were hired with little education.
As a result, later in their career it prevented them from promoting as they could not meet the educational requirements for promoting within their own department. Although the entry level requirements for most departments rarely include an associate's degree, you may be competing against many candidates who do have degrees.
There are many classes, and training opportunities out there. Seek them out and build your resume. Your resume alone will not get you hired, but it has never hurt anyone and a poor resume can definitely prevent you from getting hired. As more departments are cutting back on their new hires, they can be more selective, so why not hire someone that is turn-key and shown a track record of success in school?
If department A is hiring only one person and not conducting a formal academy, they want someone they can put right to work with minimal training and someone they trust has the self motivation and initiative to learn what they will need to learn. A strong academic background and of course, experience and training is the best indicator of these traits. I talk to many people who tell me they want to be firefighters, but too many of them simply aren't putting their time in the classroom and taking advantage of training opportunities.
5. Not seeking help or working to improve your weaknesses
It's a known fact that men don't like to stop and ask for directions. This is probably why although less than 10 percent of my customers are female, woman make up almost half of the inquiries I receive for help and advice.
This was my biggest mistake when testing. I knew I had to improve my written test scores, and I did so. Soon I was scoring in the mid to high 90s consistently. I had no problems with the physical abilities tests either. However, I was inconsistent and just about average with regard to my interview scores, and average won't get you hired. I knew this was my weakness, but I waited years to really do anything about it.
I mean, I worked on it, by dedicating a great deal of thought to what I might be doing wrong, but I never sought any help. In fact, it was by chance that I finally got help from Captain Bob Smith. Bob had agreed to help coach me one-on-one to return a favor. In one session with Bob, I learned enough to bring my interview scores to the next level. I soon started scoring consistently better and in fact came out number one on the very next test for the first time ever, after five years of unsuccessful testing.
Far too many candidates do what I did. They keep throwing themselves into the testing process, (whether it be the written, physical or interview), knowing they are not doing great or not passing, and don't seek any help to improve their performance and scores. Seek out your own resources first and then seek out help from people that have been helping others for a long time. Even those who are the greatest at their respective sport or talent still have coaches, because there's always room for improvement. Even Tiger Woods has a coach. Find yourself a coach or seek the help from professional coaches like Captain Bob Smith, or the great services offered at 911 interviews. If the written test is not your strong suit, get a test prep book, or check out www.fpsi.com/onlinetests.html, or www.fireprep.com