Handling Situational Questions on Firefighter Exams

The oral board uses these questions to assess a firefighter candidate’s thought process.


Most fire departments use some type of interview process to select entry-level candidates. In fact, so much weight is put on the “oral” that it is not uncommon to see the interview accounting for 100% of a candidate’s overall score while the other phases of the exam are scored as “pass or...


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Most fire departments use some type of interview process to select entry-level candidates. In fact, so much weight is put on the “oral” that it is not uncommon to see the interview accounting for 100% of a candidate’s overall score while the other phases of the exam are scored as “pass or fail.” Translated, candidates who meet the minimum score on the written and physical agility portions of the exam the move forward in the testing process. At this juncture all candidates are considered equal.

Because the interview is such an important component of the hiring process, one would expect this to be the area on which candidates concentrate most of their energy and effort, but this is not the case. Most candidates concentrate their efforts on getting as many certifications and fire science courses as possible. While these are certainly important, firefighters are hired based on their merits as members of the community and being people the fire department wants representing it for the next 30 years. A wise fire chief once said, “We hire for quality, we train for skill.” In other words, a fire department cannot train people to be of high moral fiber (hopefully, they learned that years ago), but it can train them to be firefighters.

One of the most challenging portions of the interview deals with situational questions. Often, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The oral board is simply trying to assess a candidate’s thought process. Other times, however, there are definite pitfalls set up to fail a candidate who answers a question in a certain way.

Traditionally, candidates learn how to handle situational questions by visiting fire stations and seeking the opinions of the firefighters. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a consensus on complex situations. As a result, the candidate frequently leaves the station with more questions than answers. Even though this may be the case, it is imperative that people seeking firefighter positions visit fire stations and interview the firefighters.

Even if two firefighters disagree on how to handle a complex situation, the candidate will hear how each would handle a given situation. It would be up to the candidate to evaluate which philosophy he or she subscribes to and add it to his or her repertoire. At this point, the candidate has thought about the issue and is able to formulate an answer if asked to do so.

A negative aspect of visiting the fire station and getting coaching for the interview is the fact that most candidates memorize the answers without understanding the concepts behind the questions. A candidate who can parrot a desirable answer, but who does not understand the concept will be stumped if the board gives a different slant to the question. A candidate who understands the concept behind the question cannot be baffled by it.

As a fire captain for a large metropolitan fire department, I have been involved with my department’s entry-level interviews as well as hiring processes in numerous neighboring cities. I am constantly amazed at how poorly fire service candidates prepare for their interviews. These men and women all seem to have their hearts in the right place, but their delivery (and answers) all need work.

After proctoring hundreds of entry-level interviews and seeing first hand the strong need to educate candidates on the oral exam process, I spent the past year compiling a list of the most common entry-level interview questions. In this column, which is based on my book Smoke Your Firefighter Interview, the reader will find the most commonly asked fire department interview questions along with what I believe are the best answers. In addition to the initial questions and answers, I will provide follow-up questions (and answers) designed to look deeper into the core issues.

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