Fire department oral interviews can “make or break” a candidate’s chances of being promoted. A candidate’s persona regarding these areas goes a long way during and after the interview process. More often than not, it can mean the difference between success and failure, especially when the selection is close.
Fire department oral interview boards are very different than other industries. They are not like any other interview you will ever take. Whether you are interviewing for a new position or for a promotion, success is based on the candidates’ understanding of the interview itself, preparation and practice, and the ability for the candidate to sell himself in a short amount of allotted time and essentially “close the deal.”
Most promotional candidates struggle with learning how to succeed in a firefighter oral interview. Successful candidates understand exactly what answers the raters are looking for. Candidates who don’t understand what is being asked or have done the bare minimum to prepare usually struggle for years, eventually giving up on their dreams of promoting within the ranks.
This article is going to address some of the “tricks of the trade” on how to successfully score high on a promotional oral interview by understanding the following:
• How to “sell yourself” and “close the deal” as a candidate
• What raters are looking for in an interview
• The promotional interview–what to expect
• The perils and pitfalls of an oral interview
• Tips for being successful and gaining confidence
Preparation is the single most important factor on achieving success for an oral interview. Preparation goes far beyond taking a public speaking class, reading an interview prep book, talking to other firefighters about the interview or what they think will be asked, or “cramming” a few hours of studying right before the interview takes place. Preparing for the oral interview can go a long way in easing the stress of the actual interview.
The successful candidate prepares months ahead of time. This person has taken the time to have all his credentials in place. This person has possibly even worked with a career coach to help him in gaining some confidence, help in public speaking skills, and understanding how to organize thoughts before responding to a question.
One drill called the “Self Evaluation Drill” is one of many drills to do to prepare for the oral interview. This drill can be done by someone just entering the fire service or a promotional candidate. Often, more times than not, the questions are very similar in nature for both a new hire candidate and a candidate going through the promotional process. The “Self-Evaluation Drill” is one of many ways in which a candidate can learn how to organize his thoughts on paper and practice how he will answer a particular question.
Candidates performing this drill should do so in a quiet environment with few interruptions. The drill is performed by writing out 20 to 30 of the most commonly asked interview questions. Many of these questions can be found on the Internet. For example, “Can you tell us about yourself?” and “What is your five-year plan?” are two commonly asked questions in a promotional interview.
For each question, the candidate formulates an outline or bulleted list of how he would answer the question based on his experiences and life. This is a time-consuming drill, but at the conclusion of the drill, the candidate will now have a working blueprint of what to study for the upcoming interview. This can be an ongoing work of progress through a firefighter’s career based on opportunities that present themselves on or off the job, such as interviewing for a position as a fire instructor at a local fire academy.
Memorizing an answer is not suggested. Successful candidates do not need to be robots. Candidates need to sound calm and confident and their answers need to flow naturally without a lot of “likes” or “ums.” Scientists from Princeton University and the University of California state by writing out notes (or in this case writing out the answers) by hand, candidates will improve their understanding of the material and will remember it better, since writing it down involves deeper cognitive processing of the material than typing it (Matteo, 2014).
This self-evaluation drill will expose several weak areas of a candidate’s ability to answer some basic questions and help the candidate identify strengths and weaknesses. Some candidates will find that they cannot complete all of the questions until they do some further research. For example, if the question asked is, “What is the role of a company officer?” a candidate who would receive a below average score might have a generic answer or not know anything other the fact that the department is looking to promote a company officer.
Successful candidates who receive high scores will have some general knowledge about when the department is looking for, what the job entails and what a company officer’s responsibilities are, and daily tasks and duties of a company officer. This individual will also have a working knowledge of the department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and the vision of what the future holds for the department.
By doing a little research, you can reference certain facts if they become appropriate to the conversation. Read and study any significant events associated with the past and know the challenges the department faces today.
A terrible tragedy or a downsizing announcement linked to the promotional opportunity you are seeking would be critical to have in the back of your mind.
Once the research is done, a little rehearsal can go a long way in putting you at ease; as your mind realizes you have an answer, your body will relax. Yes, this can be done in front of a mirror, but seek out a career coach, family member, or friend. You will have much better results with someone who can give you positive constructive criticism and feedback.
The “ABC’s” of How to Sell Yourself
What Is Always Be Closing—ABC?
The phrase “Always Be Closing” was popularized in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross starring Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, and Jack Lemmon. The movie emphasized the darker, cutthroat side of the sales industry. Always Be Closing (ABC) is a motivational phrase used to describe a sales strategy. Always Be Closing is a mantra used in the sales world meaning a seller must always be in the mindset of closing deals, using whatever tactics are necessary.
In the mindset of a promotional candidate, the successful candidate should have the same mindset: close his audience–in this case, your oral board evaluators. You may only have 20 minutes to prove to everyone in the room you are the right candidate for the promotion based on your education, work experience, department involvement, life experience, and maturity. As you begin to discuss your life and answer questions, traits like self-expression, personality, and a sense of maturity begin to reveal themselves. Are you confident in your presentation or just verbose? Do you have a sense of self-awareness that promotes keen judgments and good decision making or are you full of reluctant behaviors resulting in a vague sense of who you are? Be honest but careful in revealing your likes and dislikes and remember that less is more. Remember, a great deal is revealed in 20 minutes, more than at any other time in your life, except maybe in an emergency. Stop talking when you are done. Wait for the next question with a sense of confidence, being at ease with who you are.
ABC for the promotional candidate in the fire service serves as a reminder that for every question asked to the candidate from the oral board, the question is answered with the intention of moving the candidate (sale) toward the promotion (close).
“Act As If”
Many years ago in the business world, I learned an important principle called “Act As If” to get what I wanted out of my career. What does “act as if” mean? It means that if you want something, you must act as if you already have it in order to get it. This is an easy principle to understand but, for some reason, underutilized in the fire service. If you want a promotion to a captain, “act as if” you are already a captain. If you are already a captain and looking to promote to a chief officer and one day wish to run your department’s training division, “Act As If” you run the training division when called on to lead company training or a drill. When you walk into your captain promotional interview and introduce yourself by saying, “Good Morning, I’m Captain Rossi. Thank you for considering me for this position,” you are already in the mindset of that role. Everything that comes out of your mouth will be in the mindset of that company officer you want to be. “ACT AS IF” can be very powerful in helping you get what you want.
“Get Promoted”: The Oral Interview for the Promotional Candidate
What to Expect
Every fire department has a different set of traits they are looking for in a candidate based on what the roles and responsibilities are for the position sought. One of the many components of the promotional process is the oral interview. The oral interview is designed to assess candidates’ ability to solve problems, communicate details about themselves and their goals, and provide an insight into how the candidates will help make the department better. Interviews aren’t failsafe and certainly don’t constitute the only way to assess an individual’s readiness for promotion, but they can be an effective tool in evaluating prospective company and chief officers.
The interview may be structured in a sense that candidates are asked the same questions in the same order and are all compared on the same scale. Candidates can be asked job-related questions and a panel of subject matter experts evaluate the responses and scores the candidates in a number of critical dimensions (knowledge, skills, and abilities).
The interview may consist of static questions and/or dynamic questions. For static questions, the candidate is asked a question or given a short scenario. The candidate is scored based on completeness of the response with no feedback from the evaluator once the question is read. Dynamic questions are often used with a scenario. The candidate may be presented with an issue or problem with an employee or asked about a certain tactic used on the fireground and as the candidate begins to answer the question, he will receive feedback from the evaluator based on the candidate’s answer that will eventually have the scenario played out until completed.
For example, a candidate may be shown a photo of a three-story garden-style apartment with smoke and fire showing from the third floor and the candidate is asked what tactics will be used in the first 10 minutes on scene. If a candidate states he is attacking the fire with an 1¾-inch hoseline connected to a “portable standpipe,” the evaluator might come back and say, “Based on your initial actions, the fire is now under control. What would you do next”? The candidate and evaluator will go back and forth until the objective is met or evaluator has what he is looking for in a particular question. Finally, the questions may be straightforward or come in the form of a scenario testing the candidates’ knowledge of department SOPs, rules and regulations, and general knowledge and sense of the job.
Here are some examples of some of the most common promotional STATIC questions asked in an oral interview board: • Tell us about yourself. • What have you done to prepare for or what do you think qualifies you for the position? • What is your five-year plan? What is your 10-year plan? • What are three of your strengths? What is one of your weaknesses? • What projects can you attach your name to? • How would you handle a disgruntled employee? • What is the job of an officer? • What are two issues facing the fire service today and what impact do they have on our department?
Here are some examples of some of the most common promotional DYNAMIC questions asked in an oral interview board. These could also be delivered using role players in the oral board:
• You are a new captain. You have been directed to plan a multicompany drill for your battalion. What topic would you choose and how would you coordinate the training?
• A firefighter on your crew receives a needle stick from a transient patient. Describe your actions.
• You are assigned as a new captain to a crew that breeds negativity and mistrust. They are very vocal in their beliefs to the point that it is impacting the morale of your crew. What would you do and why?
• Your battalion chief has just presented you with a new departmental policy. You know it will not be popular with your crew. How will you deliver the message to your crew?
• A City Council member approaches you and asks your opinion of how you could save money on the fire department. What would you do and why?
“Smoke” the Promotional Interview
An internal interview is different from a regular interview, so you need a new set of strategies. The mechanics will be different. First impressions are out the window and you’re already familiar with the power structure of the department. You might have to dodge some awkward situations along the way, too. Here are a few additional tips for improving your ability to be successful in a promotional interview:
• Look professional! If you don’t look squared away for that one hour of your life, how can the panel expect you to be squared away for the rest of your career?
• Never assume that anyone on the panel knows your accomplishments, even if the training battalion chief is your golf buddy on the weekends. Sell yourself!
• Greet the panel members by name/rank, shake their hands, and establish a rapport.
• Make sure to listen to a multiple-part question before formulating an answer and ignoring the remaining parts of the question. The candidate may deliver an outstanding answer to the first part of the question, but that represents only 33% of the answer. The result is a failing overall score.
• Print a one-page resume’ on high-quality paper to distribute. Bring enough for each member of the panel. Keep them in a manila folder until you’re ready to distribute.
• Stand by your answers. The panel may question your answer to “shake” you or see if you’ll change under pressure. Beware of this tactic, and be prepared to further justify your original answer, if necessary.
• Be confident, not cocky!
• Pause before you answer your questions. It will give you time to think about your answer and will allow you to “control” that portion of the interview. Engage your brain before you engage your mouth.
• Present the package. You have to bring out the top hat and cane, step it out, and give the board the complete show. Class A for the interview. Anything less, is not enough. It’s you! It’s the bright lights. It’s Broadway!
There is no substitute for preparation. Preparation is the key to achieving a high score in the oral interview and securing your promotion. Yes, it is difficult to hear a question and rapidly formulate an adequate answer, especially under the added pressure of the evaluators staring at you from across the table.
A candidate who has, prior to the interview, thought about and developed ideas and responses to all of the traditional concepts typically discussed in an oral interview will usually score higher than the candidate who is contemplating a topic for the first time during the interview. Act As If you are already in that role and work toward closing the deal. The success of the interview and your future promotion are in your hands. Don’t let your competition outperform you. Perspective drives your performance. Go out there and get what you want!
Health & Lifestyle – 9/24/2014 – VOA Learning English “Writing Notes by Hand vs Typing” web article by Anna Mateo
Investopedia – Personal Finance, Always Be Closing Maya Dollarhode, May 5, 2019
Mark Rossi is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Department. He has a BS in finance and an MBA from the University of Florida, is an accredited fire officer, and is a licensed and certified career coach. In addition to working as a fire instructor, he is the founder and president of RockStar Interview & Promotional Prep Training, LLC.