Look Good in the Promotional Exam Process

Issue 8 and Volume 5.

Getting promoted is not an easy task. It takes a great deal of perseverance, patience, persistence, dedication and, of course, good old-fashioned hard work. Nothing in life comes easy, especially when you have one of the best careers in the world.

Clearly, not every person who starts out on the path toward promotion actually gets promoted. Not every doctor can be the chief of medicine, and not every lawyer will have a firm named after them. Continuing with this logic, not every firefighter will be promoted to company officer, and not every company officer will be promoted to chief officer.

So how long will it take to get promoted? I would venture that it takes the average promotional candidate three shots at a promotion before they actually get promoted. Some do it in less time, some do it in more time, and some never get the chance to do it at all. I’ve known people for whom it took 10 to 15 years to get promoted in the fire service. I’ve known people who gave up after their first promotional exam. And I’ve known people who got promoted on their first promotional exam. In the end, it really comes down to the idea that “what you give is what you get.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that luck (to a certain degree) as well as timing also play a role in the promotion process, as do the relationships you have with your department and senior staff. I’ve known a number of candidates who’ve wanted to get promoted but were on their chief’s bad side and, therefore, think they’ll never get promoted. If that’s your case, then you usually only have a few options: 1) Wait for the fire chief to retire or move on; 2) Try to get on the chief’s good side and rebuild a positive working relationship; 3) Look for promotional opportunities outside your department; or 4) Give up, as you’re only going to make your life miserable if you continue. One can only bang their head against a brick wall for so long before brain damage sets in.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you stop trying, you’re giving up your dream. But if you continue working on improving your weaknesses, keeping up your strengths and preparing yourself to be the best promotional candidate you can be, then you greatly improve your chances of actually achieving that dream!

Tips for Getting Promoted
With that in mind, following are some general tips to start you off on the right foot as you prepare for a fire service promotional process:

  1. Begin preparing for the entire process RIGHT NOW! It will be here before you know it.
  2. You can never be overqualified, overeducated or overprepared for a promotional examination.
  3. You can be the most qualified person in the process, but if you can’t sell those qualifications to the raters and your department, you’ll never get promoted. They’re promoting a person—not a résumé. Also, it’s important to be careful about using the term “most qualified,” because it’s very subjective. Is the most qualified person the one with the most education? The most training? The most seniority? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, regardless of what you’re told or believe.
  4. The best predictor of future success is past behavior. Think about your past. Are you proud or ashamed of your actions, accomplishments, performance, etc.? It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf. Yes, your past may come back to haunt you, and those skeletons may be dragged out of the closet, but time is on your side in most situations. If you’re questioned about something from your past that you’re ashamed of, just own up, take responsibility and be able to prove what you’ve done since then to ensure that the same thing won’t happen again and that you’ve learned from your mistakes. Time usually heals our mistakes, as long as you can demonstrate that you’ve made tremendous improvement.
  5. Remember that people typically fail for two reasons: 1) They’re unprepared, and 2) they’re nervous. Do what it takes to overcome both of those and you’ll likely be successful. I realize that this is easier said than done, but you have to make every effort to overcome these obstacles.      
         How do you increase your preparedness? By taking the time to prepare for anything related to the rank to which you’re aspiring. Simply being prepared may help you overcome any nervousness you feel. The raters know you’ll be nervous, so they’ll overlook some of it; however, if you’re not careful, your nerves can get the best of you and prevent you from being the best you can be. If you can’t handle the nervousness and stress of a promotional examination, how will you handle the big one when it hits?
  6. If you want the promotion bad enough, by all means go for it full time and full speed ahead! The badge isn’t going to drop from the sky. You must earn it and be fully prepared for the promotion when the day arrives.
  7. Remember this phrase, which I saw on a poster: “Remember that the butt you may have to kiss tomorrow belongs to the toes you are stepping on today.” Think about that; it has a tremendous amount of validity to it. What goes around, comes around. Plus, the toes you step on may belong to someone who supervises you in the future. Take the time to earn the credibility and respect of all your co-workers, regardless of whether they’re working above you, below you or at the same rank as you.
  8. Before you participate in the promotional process, tie up any loose ends. This shows that you’re not a quitter and that you like to finish what you start. For example, if you’re currently pursuing a college degree, make sure you have a timeline and a plan for completion. And the same goes for any projects assigned to you that are “in the works.”
  9. Don’t be one of those “8 to 8, out the gate” people. In other words, if you want to get promoted, you’ll need to do more than just show up right at the start of the shift and leave immediately at the end of the shift, putting in the bare minimum to stay just below the radar and not get in trouble, and essentially doing nothing more than just collecting a paycheck. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to get involved with your department. But be careful—don’t let the quantity of work get in the way of the quality of work. Trust me, been there, done that before. Choose your assignments wisely so you don’t get in over your head, and you’re able to represent yourself in the best possible light. Most fire departments will expect promotional candidates to have demonstrated department involvement, if not off duty, then at least on duty.
  10.  Learn from the good—and the not-so-good—of others around you. This includes personnel of all ranks and from all departments. There’s always something to learn (what to do and what not to do) if you pay attention.
  11. Keep yourself appropriately groomed. Many fire departments have rules prohibiting facial hair (except for a moustache), but some folks enjoy pushing the envelope. Don’t expect to be the rabble-rouser and wonder why you’re not getting promoted. Although it’s true that a fire department is not legally allowed to discriminate based on your appearance (among other things), realize that perception is reality. That means that you can be the best paramedic in the world, but if you have tattoos and piercings all over your body, you may be perceived negatively. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong; I’m just saying that it’s human nature and reality. Avoid the whole situation entirely and just be conservative in your approach. Remember that it’s important to stick out in the promotional process—in a positive way! Stick out by having a unique background of education, training and experience.
  12. Last but definitely not least, prepare for the position, not the test! Too many candidates focus too much on the test itself and forget to prepare for the actual position. Most fire departments modify, at least slightly, each promotional examination process. As long as you prepare for the actual position to which you’re aspiring, you should be prepared for anything that’s thrown at you during the promotional process.

Final Thoughts
Remember that nothing worth having in life is going to come easily. It’s up to you to remain positive, focused and motivated to continue doing what it takes to get promoted. There are going to be many frustrating and disappointing moments while participating in the promotional process, but the key is to recognize your weaknesses, be open to constructive criticism and continue to pursue your dream. Once you give up, you let someone else take your spot riding shotgun on the fire engine or driving the command vehicle or whatever it is that you dreamed about. So don’t give up!