If you are planning on becoming a firefighter, remember the phrase "the best predictor of future behavior, is past behavior." If I remember correctly, I believe I first heard that phrase from retired California Highway Patrol Captain Gordon Graham, motivational speaker and lawyer extraordinaire. At first I was offended by it, because I truly believed people deserved a second chance. Well, as I get older in life, and have more experience under my belt, I truly see how the phrase is very accurate, the majority of the time.
You may be asking, why is this phrase - "the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," important to me - the future firefighter? Let me explain how it is important, but also how you can best present yourself to a fire department when going through the "courtship phase" of the getting employment in the fire service. Face it, going through all of the hoops of a fire department hiring process (application completion, application screening, written examination, oral interview, physical ability test, medical examination, background investigation, etc.) is no different from a courtship, or the time you first started dating someone.
Think back to when you first starting dating someone. To use a baseball metaphor, you didn't start out with a grand slam the first time you were at bat. You may have experienced a number of strikeouts, a number of singles, a number of doubles or even triples, and maybe even a couple of home runs or grand slams, depending on how you measure the experience. Basically, before you got to home plate, you had to get around all of the bases.
Becoming a firefighter is really no different if you think about it. In most departments in today's world, you don't just walk into a fire station and say "hire me, because I want to become a firefighter." There is usually an application process that may or may not be on a continuous basis. For all you know, they may have just taken applications and you may have to wait a couple of years just to get a shot at even applying for a job. The entire hiring process to become a firefighter may take six months to one year, give or take, depending on the level of bureaucracy, the available budget, or a number of factors typically out of your control and maybe even the fire department's control.
During this courtship phase, and even more importantly, prior to the courtship phase, the choices you have made in life may have a bearing on your getting hired as a firefighter or your not getting hired as a firefighter. Yes, you read it here - one mistake, one wrong life choice or decision, can keep you from becoming a firefighter, regardless of how much time has passed since your poor choice.
I am focusing on this phrase because I think it is so important for all future firefighters to be aware of. I also think it is important for all current firefighters aspiring to promote or change departments to be aware of. Yes - your past and your present may come back at some point in the future and haunt you, and keep you from a job or a promotion.
I have seen more future or current firefighters than I care to mention, make mistakes, poor choices or decisions while they are in the hiring or the promotional process for a fire department, which virtually causes them the job or the promotion. If you want to become a firefighter, and you have an arrest record, including but not limited to such offenses such as stealing, alcohol use/abuse/possession, drug use/abuse/possession, disturbing the peace, domestic violence, assault and/or battery, excessive traffic violations, etc., I hate to sound negative or unoptimistic, but your chances of getting hired are going to be slim to none. I'm not saying it's impossible to get hired with any of the above mentioned offenses on your record, but it isn't going to be easy.
Now, we're assuming you were arrested and/or convicted for any of those offenses prior to wanting to get hired as a firefighter. However, get arrested and/or convicted during the time you have made the decision to become a firefighter and have actually entered the hiring process, and you've probably shot yourself in the foot in regards to your chances at a job with that department you're testing with, or even any department in the near future.
All of us have made at least one mistake, choice or decision in life we are probably not proud of, especially if it involved something illegal, unethical, immoral, or just plain stupid. Typically though, if we made a mistake, poor choice or decision in our past life, we have three things we can do to assist us in showing a prospective employer we are worth taking a chance on.
Number one: time from the mistake, poor choice or decision. The longer we get from our mistake, poor choice or decision, the better we will look. Time usually heals things.
Number two: what we have done since that poor choice or decision. Have we made the same mistake, poor choice or decision over and over again, demonstrating we are a creature of habit and not able to change our past ways? Even more importantly, if we did make a mistake, poor choice or decision, how much have we done to show our prospective employer we are better than the majority of the candidates, and that we have definitely learned from our poor choice or decision?
Number three: most importantly, have we taken responsibility for our mistake, poor choice or decision and demonstrated accountability for our actions or non-actions? To me, that is the most important outcome of any mistake, poor choice or decision anybody makes. Are they able to admit they made a mistake, and are they able to hold themselves accountable to do what it takes to ensure such a mistake, poor choice or decision never happens again?
Do people deserve second chances? For the most part, yes they do. However, depending on the mistake, poor choice or decision, would you want someone who raped your daughter to have a second choice? Would you like someone who drove drunk and killed your loved one to have a second choice? I'll let you make the call. Depending on the mistake, poor choice or decision, people deserve a second chance. But do they deserve a third chance? Do they deserve a fourth chance? Look at history and make the call yourself.
Now put yourself in the shoes of an employer, a fire chief, or someone else on an oral board or a fire department hiring process evaluating candidates to determine who will be the "best fit" for their department. When the majority of candidates are demonstrating no arrest record, and a relatively clean background, why would a fire department want to take a chance on hiring someone who has a "questionable background," especially if the person had made a mistake, poor choice or decision during the hiring process or at least the time they had made the decision to become a firefighter? If someone has made the decision to become a firefighter, you would think they would also make a decision to stay away from drugs, stay away from stupidity, stay away from trouble, and be on their best behavior. Unfortunately, history tells a different story and that is not always the case.
The good news is that most future firefighters, after having made the decision to become a firefighter and give it their all to get hired, stay on the straight and narrow and on their best behavior, knowing they are being watched and evaluated, and that one mistake, poor choice or decision can cost them a firefighter job.
None of us are perfect; if you think you are, please take a walk on your nearest body of water to see how far you can walk. By being human, we will make mistakes, poor choices or poor decisions in our lifetime. However, if you remember that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, you'll hopefully keep those mistakes, poor choices or poor decisions to a minimum, knowing that one mistake can keep you from getting a job in the fire service!
Steve Prziborowski is a 15-year veteran and student of the fire service and is currently serving as a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department.Other positions Steve has held at the Santa Clara County Fire Department include: firefighter/engineer, firefighter/engineer-paramedic, fire captain, training captain, and operations captain. Additional responsibilities include serving or having served as an on-call safety officer, an on-call public information officer, and an on-call fire investigator.
Steve is also an instructor within the Chabot College Fire Technology Program in Hayward, CA, where he has been instructing fire technology and EMS classes for 14 years. Four and a half years were also spent as the Fire Technology Coordinator, and seven years were also spent as the EMT Program Director and Primary Instructor.
Steve is an executive board member for the Northern California Training Officers Association, currently serving as the president.
Steve is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, and hazardous materials technician, as well as a state-licensed paramedic. Steve has an associate degree in fire technology, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and a master's degree in emergency services administration. He is currently a student in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.
Steve also provides a free e-mail mailing list and publishes a free monthly newsletter (The Chabot College Fire & EMS News); both are geared toward better preparing the future firefighter for a career in the fire service and the current firefighter for promotion, and are available on his website at www.chabotfire.com.