Visiting a fire station can be a very educational and rewarding experience when you are testing to become a firefighter. However, if you are not careful, the impression you make, as well as the behavior you present may actually go against you when it comes to getting a job with that fire department. I am a firm believer that you don't get a second chance to make a first impression.
Why would you even want to visit a fire station you might wonder? Here are the three main reasons why you would visit a fire station:
- To find out more about the job of a firefighter
- To obtain more information about that fire department, either before they offer a firefighter examination or during the firefighter examination process
- To visit with any acquaintances or friends that are working in the fire service
What benefits can you receive out of visiting a fire station?
- Getting the chance to network, make friends, and make contacts that may be able to assist you in the future. Even if that fire department doesn't hold a firefighter exam for the next few years, I bet many of those firefighters have friends or relatives that work on many other neighboring fire departments that they can put you in touch with for assistance.
- Getting the chance to learn more about the job of a firefighter.
- Getting the chance to ask questions of the firefighters that you may have not been able to find answers for on the department website or through other methods
- Getting the chance to meet firefighters that may be sitting on your oral interview panel either in that department or a neighboring department (I can't count the amount of times I have met someone at a fire station only to find them at a later date on my oral board interviewing me, either in their own department or a neighboring department). The benefit here is that if you make a great impression on that station visit, it can go in your favor. However, the downfall is that if you make a poor impression, it can also go against you.
- Getting the chance to talk to the newly hired firefighters so that you can ask them questions relating to what they did to get hired, and to find out what information they can share with you that might assist you in your pursuit.
Here are some suggestions to ensure that you make a good impression and that you properly present yourself to the firefighters:
- Try not to just "drop in" and say, "can I get some of your time?" Many fire departments have very busy schedules during the day and like to plan out their daily routine as best as they can. Some departments require that you contact the fire department administration office to make an appointment to visit a fire station. If you're not sure, just stop by a fire station and ask them if you could make an appointment for a station tour and a chance to ask them some questions about becoming a firefighter. They will either schedule an appointment or if they have the time, fit you in right there.
- If at all possible, attempt to call the station in advance to set up an appointment. Some departments provide station phone numbers to the public; some do not provide station phone numbers to the public. It wouldn't hurt to stop by administration or a fire station and ask them for an address and phone list of all of their fire stations. Let them know you want to become a firefighter and that you want to learn more about the job and have a chance to talk to the firefighters (because of heightened security measures these days, don't be surprised if they don't give out phone numbers). The worst thing they could say is no.
- If they don't give you the station addresses, where can you find them? Many fire departments list their fire station addresses on their website or in the blue government pages of the phone book.
- Whenever you stop by a fire station, bring a nice dessert. If you bring ice cream, don't bring the square stuff. I laughed when I heard Captain Bob mentioning on his audiotapes to not bring the square boxes of ice cream - bring the round containers. How true that is. I realize it is the thought that counts, but it just comes across as tacky or cheap (in my opinion). If you have the chance, bake something nice (like a cake, pie, or chocolate chip cookies - you can never go wrong with chocolate chip cookies!), it shows a little more personalization and also demonstrates your cooking ability (or lack of ability). Make sure you bring enough for everyone on that shift. Most fire stations only have three or four members on duty per day. One container of ice cream or one pie should suffice. However, if there are 10 or more firefighters on duty, don't walk in with one container of ice cream. Do your homework in advance; if worse comes to worse, count the cars in the fire station parking lot - which might give you a good clue.
- If you set up an appointment - Do not be late! This is a double standard. The firefighters can be late because that is their job! I remember a candidate showing up at 1:00 p.m. like I had asked him to. He had to wait out front until 2:00 p.m. because we were on a grass fire. When we came back, he appeared to be perturbed that we were not there at 1:00 p.m. I kindly explained we had work to do, but he still seemed to be bitter and bent out of shape. Luckily he didn't get hired, because with an attitude like that, I bet he would have been a joy to be around at the station. If the firefighters are not there when you are, kindly wait for then. Give them time to return, and if you find yourself having to leave, at least leave a nice note on the door saying that you waited but you had another appointment (or something important) you had to leave for and that you would like to arrange another meeting some time. Leave them your phone number. That shows respect and common courtesy.
- When you are at the station, make the attempt to say hi, introduce yourself, and shake the hand of everyone present that day. You never know where you might see that person again. By showing your politeness and enthusiasm at meeting the different firefighters, you show a positive and can-do attitude.
- When you arrive, already have a list of questions that you want to have answered. Also, bring a notebook and multiple pens (multiple because I have had numerous ones run out of ink and it is embarrassing to have to ask to borrow a pen). I mention the notebook also because I had a candidate stop by and, 30 minutes into the question and answer session, he asked me if he could have a pen and paper to right down all of this good information I was providing him with. He didn't impress at all. Any time you visit a fire station you should expect to get some good information to write down. Also, if he didn't feel it was important to bring pen and paper, how is he going to be at work when he has to think and act on his own at times? Gee Chief, I didn't think it was that important, so I didn't do it! Yeah right.
- Dress appropriately. Don't be the candidate that comes in to the station in a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops. Don't be like many of the other candidates. Remember that you don't want to be a clone. You want to stand out from the other candidates in a positive way. For the men: a simple polo-style or button-down is appropriate for a shirt (try to stay away from t-shirts); khakis or even clean jeans are appropriate for pants, and for shoes, you can wear any type of casual, clean, polished, closed-toe shoes (no sandals). For the women: an appropriate shirt would be something tasteful, and non-revealing; clean and tasteful pants; and for your shoes, you can wear any type of casual, clean, polished, closed-toe shoes (no sandals). You don't have to be as formal as you would for an oral interview, but you do have to dress appropriately and not too casual.
Why? You never know whom you're going to meet at the fire station and where you'll see them again. I remember the time I was in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops visiting a fire station. I thought I was all cool and everything until the fire chief walked in and the captain introduced me to him. I found out later from the captain that the chief likes everyone in the department to always wear their uniform because he is into a professional image. As luck would have it, I ended up getting a chief's interview. Unfortunately I was so nervous when I went in there because of how I was dressed when I first met him, that I did not do as good as I could have. Yes, there are those that say that they are not going to be someone they are not and that the chief should take them as they are. Keep thinking in that form or fashion and I bet your chances of getting hired will greatly decrease. It's not what they can do for you - it's what you can do for them.
- Do not overstay your welcome. You should expect to be there any where from 30 minutes to maybe an hour or so. Any more time than that is eating into their daily routine. Believe it or not, many fire departments do not sit in the chairs all day waiting for the bell to go off. They have to do hydrant testing, training, physical fitness, apparatus and facility maintenance, fire prevention inspections, public education details, and go on emergency and non-emergency calls. The more time they spend with you, the less time they have to do those things. Don't get me wrong; I understand the importance of meeting with firefighter candidates during a testing process, and I will happily put aside some of those details to help someone out. I've even had candidates come into the workout room and pull up a chair while I run on the treadmill, just so I can get my workout in.
- Do not wait until the last minute to stop by the fire station. If I had a dollar for every candidate that stopped by at 8:00 p.m. the night before his or her interview, desperate for assistance, I would be a rich man. What made them wait so long? Leave yourself plenty of preparation time in advance. Showing up at the last minute only proves to us that you either have poor time management or organizational skills.
- If you find yourself doing more talking then listening, you're probably digging yourself a hole! You need to be a sponge. Ask a question, and then let them answer. Remember this is not a time to brag about how great you are or let them know how crazy the department would be by not hiring you.
- If you get a good vibe from the crew that you've been talking with, go ask them if you could schedule a mock oral interview with them at a later date (don't forget to also bring desert then). Mock orals can be tricky if you get people assisting you that have not been on an oral panel for years or have very little experience in the way of assisting candidates. One thing you should be asking at the station is if any of them have sat on the oral panels recently. If they have, then you might see if they would be willing to give you a mock oral. Take it for what it is worth - someone's opinion. Just remember that everyone has opinions, not one opinion is necessarily right, and that you can learn something from everyone.
- Do not forget to thank the crew for taking the time to assist you. Even a simple thank-you note mailed to them after the visit is a nice gesture that would allow them to remember you in a positive light (unless you were a bumbling idiot and the thank you note keeps your name in their heads forever!).
- When you are leaving, ask the captain if there are any other stations they would suggest you stop by as well. On that same note, ask them if there are any other individuals within the fire department that they would recommend you talk to as well. When I have good quality candidates stop by and ask me this questions, I try and point them to people that have been recently hired as well as people I know have sat on past oral boards (because they have a good idea of what they liked and disliked in the candidates that they chose to be the best).
- Last, but not least, remember this little nugget. You are in the spotlight 100 percent of the time you are at the fire station. Don't let your guard down! The entire time you are there the crewmembers are informally testing you. They might ask you a question such as "why do you want to work for us?" or "tell us about yourself." Make sure that you have good answers to those questions (which you should already have because you have been practicing and rehearsing for your oral interviews, haven't you?).
If you just keep in mind that visiting fire stations can either help your outcome or hurt your outcome, you should be able to make that positive first impression (the only that will potentially last your entire career). Visiting fire stations is a very critical part of the firefighter testing process. Make that positive first impression, and you increase your chances of success!
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department. Steve is an instructor with the Chabot College Fire Technology Program in Hayward, CA, where he publishes a free monthly newsletter, "The Chabot College Fire & EMS News", that is geared toward better preparing the future firefighter for a career in the fire service and the current firefighter for promotion. He is an Executive Board member for the Northern California Training Officers Association, where he is a past president. To read Steve's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Steve by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.