Becoming a Volunteer Firefighter Can Offer Valuable Experience

Oct. 1, 2008
Gaining experience as a volunteer firefighter can help set you up for success in advance and make you better for the future.

For those of you that have been thinking about taking a volunteer/reserve/auxiliary firefighter test with the hopes of getting experience and exposure to help get you a full-time firefighter position, please read this information carefully - you just might benefit from it.

A while ago, I had the pleasure of coordinating our volunteer/reserve firefighter testing process. We were looking at picking up 12 people out of about 200 plus applicants. Good odds you might say to yourself - even better once you hear what I have to say...

Our department typically picks up about 10 to 15 volunteer firefighters every couple of years. We have a maximum number of 40 spots to support our almost 300 paid personnel. Our volunteers are mostly support personnel at the scene; they respond to the scene and then meet up with the incident commander (IC) to get an assignment. They do not drive apparatus, although they are expected to do ride alongs, make a certain percentage of responses (first alarm or greater incidents), and make a certain percentage of training sessions.

Out of about 200 applications filed, we accepted about 150 or so to continue. The ones that got round-filed did so because they were not meeting geographical requirements for the most part. Those 150 or so accepted applications then proceeded to the next phase - the physical ability test (PAT). Of those 150 or so, only about 80 successfully made it through the PAT. Some were no shows, some didn't make the time standard, some couldn't even finish and a couple got transported (yes, transported by ambulance). Those 80 or so then went to the oral interviews.

Here is where I want to make some comments, specifically about our PAT and the almost 50 percent failure rate. Many of our volunteers and paid personnel were asking why so many didn't pass. Did the time change? Did the events change? No, no. This was the same test I took and most of them took, especially if they were hired within the last 12 years. But why the failures? Why the transports? Here are my thoughts to learn from:

First of all, this was the first firefighter test for many people. I truly don't think they knew what they were getting into. I bet they do now...

Second, studies have shown that a good number of the U.S. population is overweight (more so than the past, or so they say). I asked many that failed if they were in shape or had worked out for such an event and the answer was no...

Third, many candidates did not take the process as serious as they would have had it been a full-time firefighter position. Remember, the law, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and most importantly fire, do not discriminate between paid and volunteer positions. All firefighters are required and expected to do the same duties and be held to the same standards (whether they are or not is a different story).

Fourth, many candidates either ate too much prior to the PAT, did not properly hydrate before the PAT, or did not properly eat the night before.

Fifth, some candidates arrived late. Oops. The letter we sent out said to arrive at least 30 minutes prior so that they can register. One candidate showed up at 8:05, 35 minutes after he was supposed to be there. I tactfully told him that he would not be able to continue because he did not follow directions and it is paramount that firefighters follow directions. I made sure I was tactful and respectful and he actually seemed to take it pretty well. Another candidate showed up 45 minutes late, giving the excuse that he was on the wrong street. Once again, I gave him the polite "thanks, but no thanks speech" and advised him he could have prevented this by leaving plenty of time to arrive (expect traffic, car problems, etc.) and if he had driven to the location at least a day prior so that he would have know where to go.

Sixth, not following directions. Our letter said to not park on the training tower grounds and to park on the city streets. Imagine the look on my face when I see a candidate parking his car on the back apron of the station, right where the engine would have to drive through to get back into the station. I walked up to him and asked him if I could help him. He said yes, he's here for his test. I asked him what time his test was. He said 10 minutes ago (strike one). I then asked if he had read the letter. No (strike two). I then asked him why he parked his car where he did. He said "what's the big deal." (strike three - thank you for playing, Johnny tell him what he could have won...).

While I didn't have the opportunity to sit on the oral boards this time, I did sit on them the last time we did them and I bet the candidates were not much different this time around. While I'm on the subject, let me comment on the ones last time that shined:

  1. Treated it like a real full-time firefighter interview (wore a suit - many did not).
  2. Had actually researched the position they were aspiring to (you'd be surprised how many did not know what the duties or expectations of the position were). Remember that you will probably be asked questions that can expand (or contract) on that knowledge.
  3. Had actually researched the department they aspired to work for (paid or volunteer).
  4. Had arrived on time, well in advance.
  5. Had treated everyone, including the secretaries that checked them in, with respect, warmth, sincerity, and enthusiasm.
  6. Had actually prepared for the questions they might receive (volunteer questions are typically not any different than paid questions).
  7. Had actually taken tests before (this was probably not their first test). How do you find out your weaknesses relating to testing unless you start testing? Don't hold back until your dream department tests to start testing and expect to do good enough to get hired. Think of it this way - how many high school ball players go straight to the major leagues? Very few. And of those very few, how many are success stories or hall of famers? Even fewer. The best ball players have taken the time to hone their craft, practice their part, and learned how to "play the game." Yes, it is a game - whether you believe it or not. Those that learn how to play the game might not be the best firefighters in the eyes of their competition, but they were the best in the eyes of the oral panel or the department they were testing for.

That's about all I can think of. The moral of the story? Treat every interview and phase of the volunteer/reserve/auxiliary/cadet hiring process as you would a full-time paid position. Also, remember that good, bad or indifferent - this is a weeding out process. This is not "t-ball" where everybody gets to play. Just because you want to be a firefighter doesn't mean you'll ever be able to pass all phases of the process or ever be successful. The more you set yourself up for success in advance, the better you will be in the future.

Learn from Battalion Chief Prziborowski Live: Battalion Chief Prziborowski will be presenting "How to Smoke the Emergency Simulation Portion of the Promotional Assessment Center!" and "What's Keeping you From Getting Promoted?" at Firehouse Central in Las Vegas, Oct. 13 - 17, 2008.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a 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 [email protected].

About the Author

Steve Prziborowski

Steve Prziborowski, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, has more than 31 years of fire service experience. He recently retired as a deputy chief of training for the Santa Clara County Fire Department in Los Gatos, CA. Prziborowski is an instructor for the Chabot College Fire Technology Program and for the National Fire Academy. He received the Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership Legacy Award from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2020 and was named California Fire Instructor of the Year in 2008. Prziborowski is a regular presenter at fire service events, having presented in 40 states and Canada. He has authored and contributed to numerous articles, podcasts, videos, blogs and books and published four career development books: "Reach for the Firefighter Badge," "The Future Firefighter's Preparation Guide," "How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional Exams" and "101 Tips to Ace Your Promotional Exam." Prziborowski's fifth book on "Courage Under Fire Leadership" will be released in the near future.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!