Michael J. Ward discusses some important suggestions to help you secure a job with a metropolitan fire department.
Psst! Wanna know a secret? All of your fire college and state certifications mean nothing to a big-city fire department hiring officer. Not a bit of your volunteer time, patches, ranks or awards will put you higher on the eligibility list. If you have the courage, read on to learn the "8 Secrets" of getting hired by that big-city fire department you dream about.
You are hired based on your physical and mental aptitude. The employer will provide all needed training during a nine- to 26-week recruit school. The only change to this hundred-year-old practice is the impact of federal Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity (AA/EEO) legislation and court decrees.
Getting hired is a specific and arduous process that is different for every jurisdiction. To be sitting in a recruit school means that you were selected from up to 600 applications. Of those candidates who did not make it, 25% to 60% of them did not do the tasks or follow-ups that were required to stay in the hiring game.
Some unsuccessful applicants will tell you the process is "rigged." City employees who process the applicants will tell you that unsuccessful candidates cannot follow directions or show up on time to appointments. The truth is that hiring is a long, bureaucratic process that looks for reasons not to hire you. All cities have preferential hiring to meet federal AA/EEO guidelines. Many have practices that comply with consent decrees, lawsuit settlements or local policies. It's important for you to know the local rules.
Your first task in getting hired is to do the opposite of what hundreds of others have done. Decide where you want to work FIRST.
Do not spend years taking fire science classes at the community college. Do not waste hundreds of nights and weekends making rank at the local volunteer fire department. To get hired as a city firefighter, spend a week investigating the city where you want to work. You need to closely look at what the working conditions are really like at the fire department.
Your first step is to read all you can about the department. Use the local library and do a newspaper database search. In addition to search words like "___" city fire department," "firefighter" or "rescue," use "IAFF" and the names of the union president and fire chief. Look at the last five years; read about the problems, praises and issues. You can get an idea of what is happening in the department.
Go to the reference section and look for the city's annual report and current budget. Locate the fire department section of the budget. The budget is the spending map the fire department uses to operate during that fiscal year. Look for statements or expenditures that indicate if the department is expanding, shrinking or remaining level.
Photo by Chris Hutson
Visit fire headquarters office. Ask for a copy of the annual report or of any other current information about the department. An organizational chart and telephone are valuable.
Visit the local office of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). This labor organization maintains a contract with fire department administration that covers working conditions, practices and problem-solving procedures. Most IAFF locals publish newsletters or magazines. Tell the local representative that you are applying to work at the fire department and ask if you can subscribe to the newsletter.
Stop by a couple of fire stations. See how the rigs and stations look. Remember, the city fire department does not go to musters or parades. The pumpers and aerials are designed to put fires out and operate for 20 to 30 years. Many Midwest and Northeast fire stations will be 70 to 120 years old. There have been decades of reduced funding to repair or maintain the fire station building — many are looking their age!
Is This The Place For You?
You should now have a feel for the fire department. If this is where you want to spend the next quarter-century, then you need to determine two things: are they hiring and is there a residency requirement.
Are they hiring? There has been a turbulent downsizing of corporate America in the last five years. Millions of workers have lost their jobs. This downsizing has trickled down into reduced tax revenues going into local government.
Some fire departments have stopped hiring. Others have had to reduce positions and lay off employees. Unlike the recession in the mid-1970s, today's downsizing may result in a permanent restructuring of local government. At the same time, many city fire departments are seeing retirements of those who were hired between 1965 and 1975. That period had massive hiring to cover annexations and expansions. A city with a general hiring freeze may still be accepting firefighter applications.
Firefighter hiring will take place only to replace existing positions vacated by retirements, dismissals and promotions. You need to specifically ask about firefighter openings.
Photo by Bill Eisner
Your first task in getting hired is to do the opposite of what hundreds of others have done. Decide where you want to work FIRST. Then spend a week investigating the place where you want to hang your helmet and look closely at what working conditions are really like at the fire department.
Is there a residency requirement? In the 1970s, residency requirements were imposed on police and firefighters to encourage employees to be involved with their community and assist minority recruitment. Today, some West Coast cities are re-imposing residency requirements on new employees for economic, political or emergency response reasons.
If your dream job requires you to be a city resident prior to getting an offer of employment, then you need to become a resident. This is a big issue. Comply with the requirement. Recruit firefighters have been terminated for lying about residency status.
Start A Hiring Notebook
Buy a three-ring binder and start a "book" on your hiring process. This will be your reference source throughout the process. Open with your "Action" section — a list of what you should do next in the hiring process.
The second section is titled "Hiring Process." This has all of the information you have been provided and any correspondence with the Applicant or Recruitment section. If the fire department has a complex, multi-part hiring process, then make up sub-sections for each task, like "Interview," "Polygraph," "Physical Agility," etc.
The third section is "Fire Department Reference." File your organizational chart and telephone list here. Subscribe to the local newspaper. Clip and keep articles about the organization while you play the hiring game. Look to get additional publications issued by a buff club, retirement association or local labor organization.
You must make a written record of every telephone call, letter or face-to-face conversation you have with the department. For the telephone calls and face-to-face conversations, in-clude the person's name and a descrip-tion of what was said. It is vital to document what you are told to do and what that person promises to do.
#1: High Turnover and Poor Documentation.
The people who staff a fire department's Recruitment or Application section change a lot. Many officers and firefighters placed on "light duty" may be assigned to this section. Some are awaiting a medical retirement while others are waiting to get back in the fire station. As a group, these folks are not very paper-oriented.
The Recruitment section is swamped with candidates. Your hiring notebook establishes your paper trail. Your "Action" section helps the new employee assigned to Recruitment properly move your application along the process.
#2: Follow Instructions to the Letter.
Fire chiefs tend to be very detail oriented. It is important to them that every procedure is exactly followed. If a candidate cannot follow instructions for something as important as getting hired, how will this candidate act on the fireground? You must never miss a deadline or appointment. If a candidate cannot provide a copy of his or her driving record by the date requested, will this person report to work on time at the fire station?
#3: Know Your Own Danger Areas.
After missing appointments or deadlines, the next most common problem is candidates falling into their own danger areas. For example, after exercising for eight months and losing 40 pounds, a candidate passes the pre-employment weigh-in and physical agility test. Fourteen months later, this candidate is turned away on the first day of recruit school for being 25 pounds overweight.
Another candidate had a significant learning disability. Through outstanding personal effort, he increased his reading comprehension level by 2.5 grade levels in one year while in a high school. He completed his high school fire science vocational program with state certification as a Firefighter II and EMT. He was hired by a fire department and graduated from recruit school. He failed the final in-field probation exam eight months later and resigned before he was to be fired. He never told his employer of his learning disability.
This candidate's danger area was so embarrassing to him that he did not give his employer a chance to accommodate the learning disorder. While never done before, my discussion with the chief training officer indicates that the department was willing to try an alternative probation testing procedure if it had known about the disability.
Showing up drunk for your pre-employment physical, smoking a cigarette during the pre-employment interview in a department with a stringent no-smoking policy and losing your operator's license because of too many reckless-driving citations are stories I have heard from students who have lost the hiring game. More amazing are the candidates who show up for their polygraph exam with outstanding felony arrest warrants or who are prime suspects in active arson investigations.
You have decided to work for the Wombat Fire Department. Before you move into Wombat City, there are a couple of more things you need to do.
Determine what the scores are required to get an employment offer. Generally, the city will use a written exam score to place you on a rank-ordered list. The candidate with the score of 98 will be processed before the candidate with the score of 90. Below a certain score, the candidate will not get to the next step.
Some cities also rank the candidate's performance on a timed physical agility test — the candidate with the faster time will be processed first. You need to find out from the fire department what minimum scores are needed in your EEO/AA group classification to get to the next step in the employment process.
#4: Different Hiring Practices Exist.
To meet the requirements of court orders, consent degrees or other mandates, fire departments will have different threshold levels for processing candidates. Some departments have more than one hiring path. Until July 1994, Los Angeles City female firefighter applicants were not required to take the entry-level written exam.
Perform your own work-reward analysis. Is employment by the Wombat Fire Department worth the preparation? Let's look at an example.
Ed is a 24-year-old white male who installs auto alarms and stereo systems. He is also a captain in his home-town volunteer fire department. He smokes two packs of cigarettes a day. Ed obtained his General Education Degree from night school.
Ed's dream firefighter job is with Wombat Fire. Wombat is 230 miles away and requires firefighter candidates be a non-smoking resident of Wombat City.
Ed spent a week in Wombat. His research shows that he will need a minimum score of 94.5% on the written entry exam. The written exam is at the equivalent level of someone with two years of college. He will also need to complete the timed physical agility test in no more than 9:25 minutes. He participated in a similar agility test last year at a regional fire school. It took him 16 minutes.
Ed also learned that it takes 16 months from the time a candidate applies for a firefighter job and the time he or she starts recruit school. He has a lot of work to do to meet the hiring thresholds.
Thanks to his week at Wombat, Ed knows exactly what he has to do to win the hiring game. If Ed still wants to be a Wombat firefighter, he must improve his test-taking skills, stop smoking, reduce his physical agility time and look for a place to live in Wombat.
#5: Get A City Job With Another Agency.
Many civil service regulations or personnel rules allow preferential hiring for firefighter candidates already employed by the city. Some even allow the successful applicant to transfer seniority or time-in-grade pay credits from one job to another. That is not true for retirement credits, since firefighters are in a different retirement program than general city employees.
It is vital that you completely research this secret with your dream city. If preferential hiring is possible, it may only place you at the top of your AA/EEO classification group. In some cities, firefighter candidates have enjoyed preferential hiring after employment as mechanics, landscapers, building inspectors, plumbers or park service employees.
You still have to do an acceptable job at your initial city job. It is pretty hard to convince the fire department you will make a good employee if you were fired from the city garage. For Ed, he may consider getting a job with the Wombat City radio shop as an installer or technician.
#6: Become a Nationally Registered EMT-Paramedic.
While the general truth is that pre-employment certifications are not important in the hiring process, the secret is that some fire departments are looking to hire firefighter candidates who are already certified as paramedics. Most Florida and some California departments require paramedic certification as an employment prerequisite. Dallas requires paramedic certification as a requirement during the firefighter's probationary period. It will take nine months to two years to obtain certification as a National Registry paramedic. Most paramedic certification programs are offered through community colleges.
A more recent trend is to require firefighter candidates to possess National Registry or state EMT-Basic certification as a pre-hire requirement or to give preference to candidates holding those certifications.
If the city you want to work for provides preferential hiring for paramedics, you should immediately enroll in a program. Besides improving your chance of getting a job offer, obtaining paramedic certification will improve your success skills in completing recruit school. Firefighter candidates who are paramedics have had far less academic problems in recruit school.
#7: Get A Firefighting Job With An Adjacent Department.
It may be easier to get a job in a nearby county or township. Almost 200 communities went from farmland to high-rises in the last 30 years. These "edge cities" are served by small town or county fire departments faced with rapid development. These communities will consider volunteer time and immediately use your existing firefighter and emergency medical certifications. Working for an "edge city" fire department does not guarantee that you will get to the big show but is one way of getting close.
#8: Join the Military.
Many older fire departments have preferential hiring for military veterans. Just like joining an "edge city" fire department, there is no guarantee that a military service will lead to your dream city firefighter job.
For some high school and community college students, tours of duty in the military improved job skills and provided a structured lifestyle that paid off later. Many of these students obtained training as damage control technicians, aircraft firefighters or medical technicians.
Up To The Challenge?
The municipal hiring process is like an administrative version of the Firefighter's Combat Challenge — success at the hiring process means employment as a city firefighter.
There are specific rules and arduous procedures that the candidate must know about and perform flawlessly. The Hiring Notebook and the "8 Secrets" should improve your employment chances but the process still requires tenacity and concentration by you.
Michael J. Ward, a Captain II with the Fairfax County, VA, Fire and Rescue Department, is a Virginia Fire Instructor IV and Fire Officer III as well as an adjunct professor and former Fire Science Program head at Northern Virginia Community College. He has spent 15 years teaching at the high school, college, recruit probationary school and state levels.