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Best Practices for Promotional Prep

Issue 12 and Volume 8.

Most fire departments today employ some form of promotional process to determine who will be the best promotional candidate. This process may involve a full promotional assessment center to evaluate candidates, as well as various events, including (but not limited to) a written examination and/or exercise, an in-basket exercise, an oral interview, a teaching demonstration, an oral presentation, a leaderless group (where a topic is given to the group to solve and evaluators see who takes on the leadership roles), a personnel counseling or role-play scenario, and/or a fireground emergency simulation scenario.

Regardless of what process your fire department uses to evaluate who will make the promotional eligibility list, it’s critical that you put yourself in the shoes of the position you aspire to fill long before you actually take the promotional exam. Doing so allows you to appropriately prepare for what you’re getting into and to be the best you can be in the testing process. More importantly, it allows you perform at your best if and when you are promoted to the position!

With that in mind, let me share four of my secrets, or rather best practices, for getting promoted in the fire service.

1: Start Studying Now

Don’t wait to start studying for the next promotional exam. Smart promotional candidates prepare for the promotional exam years in advance. In fact, really smart candidates start preparing the day they are hired. That doesn’t mean they don’t focus on being the best probationary firefighter they can be. It means they realize that in order to be a great fire officer, they first have to be a great firefighter. They realize that they have to learn as much as they can about their current position while also building upon that rank’s knowledge base and, further, to learn as much as they can about the rank they may hold in 5 or 10 years down the road.

If you haven’t seen your department’s written examination reading list lately, I encourage you to obtain it. You’ll probably see that it contains a number of books that, if stacked vertically off of the floor, will reach to your knees, if not your waist. Think about it: Thousands of pages to read, just to prepare for the written examination. Do you honestly think you’ll be able to read and comprehend all of that information in a few months? Realistically, no. Take the time to start reading the material over the course of years, reading it multiple times to ensure that you can actually comprehend it all, and aren’t just regurgitating it.

Key Point: It’s easy to put off studying, saying you’re too busy with your personal or professional life. Guess what? You aren’t going to find any extra time as your family grows and you get older. Life is always going to be busy, so don’t put off what you can do now, because you may never have the perfect time later. Chip away at the stone, or as the adage goes, “slow and steady wins the race.”

2: Prepare UP

I learned a good lesson from Jim Edwards, a smart retired deputy chief of the Oakland (Calif.) Fire Department, whom I was fortunate enough to have as a supervisor when I was a student firefighter with his department (a work experience program through the Chabot College Fire Technology Program where I currently teach). He told me that if I ever wanted to promote in the fire service, I would need to prepare not just for the position I was testing for, but for one position above, even if I had no desire to ever end up in that next up position. Why is that critical?

  • It allows you to know what your future supervisor may expect of you (very important).
  • It allows you to get a bigger picture view of what is required of the position to which you aspire.
  • It allows you to go farther outside your comfort zone in regard to preparing for the position (training, education, experience, etc.).
  • Depending on your department, you may find yourself having to step into the next position up on occasion, whether you want to or not.

Key Point: I’ve seen more personnel than I care to mention who have put off taking certain classes, receiving certain certifications or even getting involved in certain experience activities because they figured they would wait until after the promotion to start doing so. Because we’re not in control of when we’ll be promoted, I encourage you to take advantage of things when they come up, even if they’re not at the perfect time.

As noted, that perfect time may never arrive, and when you do get promoted, trust me, you’ll be very busy learning your new position. I know of a recently promoted battalion chief who had not taken many of the suggested classes for the rank for whatever reason. Instead, while trying to learn his new job, he was trying to scramble to get those classes done when he could have taken them as a captain when he had the time to do so.

3: Know the Answer to “Why?”

Many promotional candidates enter the promotional process without a good grasp of why they want the promotion. But you should always be ready to articulate why you want the promotion. This sounds easier than it is. Promotional process raters and departments want promotional candidates who actually want the promotion for the right reasons, and who are very enthusiastic and passionate, not to mention prepared and ready to take on the challenges of the promotion. In my opinion, the right reasons for promotion can include:

  • Wanting to make a positive difference in your department, in your community, and with your personnel.
  • Wanting to get involved in the bigger picture.
  • Wanting to take on leadership roles.
  • Wanting to use the promoted position as experience for additional promotions in the future.
  • Wanting to be able to serve as a role model and mentor for those aspiring to be the best they can be or those that want to promote to the position you aspire to at some point.

Make the effort to ask for the promotion in the oral interview—something many candidates don’t even do. Even though it could be assumed that you are taking the promotional exam, thus you want the position, you can’t assume anything. When I serve as a rater for our department or others, I favor those candidates who can really throw out their reasons for promotion, which shows me how bad they want the position, and how well they have actually taken the time to research and prepare for what they were getting into, something many candidates fail to do.

If you want the promotion for the money or the power, please do everyone a favor and stay at your current position. We all know that you may make more money (on paper in a promoted position), but in some departments, it’s very possible that lower-ranking personnel may make more than promoted personnel due to increased overtime opportunities. If you want the promoted position for power or ego reasons, then do those you may have to supervise in the future (and the public) a favor and don’t take the promotion. You’ll be miserable in the long run and so will they. We’ve all seen this happen too many times around the country.

Key Point: There is a great chance you will have to successfully pass an oral interview to get promoted. Some of the questions they will ask you will probably focus on how you have prepared for the position, what you will do in the position should you get it and, of course, why you want the position—so be prepared to answer appropriately.

4: Prepare for the Position, Not the Test

Many candidates focus too much on preparing for each of the aforementioned promotional process events, as opposed to preparing for the actual position. Don’t get me wrong, it’s critical to find out which of the events your department uses and to understand how to be successful in each of the events. However, don’t get so focused on those events that you fail to consider the more practical aspects of the position.

Example: A few years ago, one of our now retired battalion chiefs was involved with creating the fireground emergency simulations for the promotional exam. He was our resident wildland firefighting expert, and everyone knew that he usually used a wildland fire as one of the two simulations on promotional assessment centers. When I took the battalion chief’s test, neither of the two simulations he created was a wildland fire scenario. One was a WMD/hazmat incident and the other was an apartment complex fire with multiple victims.

Some of my fellow candidates focused only on preparing for a wildland fire because they figured that is what he would give them and, thus, they either failed or did not do as good as they could have. The lesson learned: Prepare to manage all types of events you may be faced with in the position. Company officers and/or battalion chiefs will have to manage fires (structure, wildland), hazmat incidents, MCIs, technical rescue incidents and virtually any other type of incident that requires multiple resources to effectively mitigate the situation.

Key Point: If you prepare to manage any incident, then it doesn’t matter what is thrown at you during the promotional examination. The same goes for a personnel counseling session or a role-play scenario. If you’ve already prepared to manage a personnel problem before it happens, you should be able to successfully manage the one that is thrown at you in real life.

In Sum

Regardless of the rank for which you are preparing—engineer, company officer, battalion chief, division chief, assistant chief, deputy chief and even fire chief—it is critical to be prepared for any of those aforementioned events that you may encounter in your pursuit of the badge, and do so well in advance of having to manage them in real life!