Are You The "Best Fit" For The Fire Department?

Oct. 17, 2007
Don't lock yourself into one department, you may be in for a let down if it doesn't work out.

Too many future firefighters think it takes the best resume to get hired as a firefighter. They feel they have to possess all of the education, training, certificates and experience in the world to get a job as a firefighter. Only a select few candidates realize what it takes to get a job in the fire service. A fire department is not hiring a resume; they are hiring a person who has demonstrated to them they are the "best fit" for their department.

I have heard countless candidates feel they need to get their two-year degree, their four-year degree, their EMT certification, their paramedic license, their Firefighter 1 certificate, and every other certificate, degree, or license out there. If you really take a look at the majority of the firefighter entry-level job flyers (current and past), there are only a few things they are typically looking for in the way of minimum requirements to apply.

The most common entry-level firefighter minimum requirements are (in no specific order):

  • Must be at least 18 (or 21) years of age.
  • Must possess a high school diploma or equivalent (GED).
  • Must possess a current driver's license.

For those fire departments that choose to up the ante a bit, here are the most common certificates, degrees, education and/or training for entry-level firefighter positions:

  • EMT certification.
  • CPR certification.
  • Paramedic licensure (or certification, depending on where you work)
  • Firefighter 1 Academy certificate (a pre-service academy)
  • Firefighter 1 State (or National) certification.

Some fire departments even go as far as to have "highly desirable qualifications" on their job flyers, with some of the following being asked for:

  • Any of the above mentioned items that may not have been minimum requirements.
  • Bilingual ability.
  • Experience (volunteer or paid) as a firefighter, EMT, or paramedic.
  • Appropriate licenses to drive fire apparatus.
  • Rescue or Haz Mat certifications and/or training.
  • 15 units of fire technology college-level class work (or a few specific classes completed, such as fire behavior, fire prevention, firefighter safety, etc.).
  • Two year degree in fire technology.

When I started taking firefighter tests a little over 16 years ago, those were the typical requirements I started noticing, and not much has changed today (except more departments seem to want paramedics). I will be honest with you; I was one of those candidates who started out testing to become a firefighter with the belief that I had to have the best resume to get hired. Don't get me wrong, having a resume with a good chunk of the abovementioned items on it, didn't hurt me, as I scored highly on most of the oral interviews I participated in.

When I started out to become a firefighter, I already had a four-year degree. When I developed my game plan to become a firefighter with my best friend Greg Vitz, we both sat down (he also had a four-year degree), and figured out we would do the following to become firefighters:

  • Start taking tests we qualify for.
  • Enroll at the local community college and get our two-year degree in fire technology.
  • Obtain our EMT certification.
  • Obtain our Firefighter 1 Academy certificate (the local college has a pre-service firefighter academy, certified by the State and considered a minimum requirement for many of the local departments - at least it used to be).
  • Obtain our State Firefighter 1 Certificate (which we would receive after completing the Firefighter 1 Academy, and one year of volunteer experience at a local fire department).
  • Get some fire and non-fire related volunteer experience on our resume.

We figured the above should take us two years, and if we still weren't hired at two years when we had completed those items, we would go to paramedic school to make us more marketable and drastically reduce our competition. Well, two years was here, we had accomplished all of the above items, and while both of us were scoring high on most of the firefighter tests we were taking, we were still not making that final cut. So, we enrolled in a paramedic school to be the best we can be. About six months into paramedic school, Greg was hired by the Stockton Fire Department, and I was still testing. I was still doing very well and excellent by some standards. However, I was just not getting the job offers.

Don't get me wrong; halfway through paramedic school, I was picked up by a small department near Sacramento, where I was paid minimum wage to work as a paid-call firefighter, basically working a full-time schedule, but getting valuable experience and having the opportunity to start paying into the State retirement plan, an excellent opportunity. Unfortunately, it was not a full-time position and as I found out, I was not the "best fit" for their fire department in the long run, especially for a full-time position. Oh well, I got about 18 months of valuable experience and kept on testing.

I couldn't figure it out - I used to think, I have a great resume, I have everything they are looking for (per the job flyer, and from what their firefighters had told me when I had visited the stations), or so I thought I had. I was the typical candidate (you have probably said this, or have heard it from others) who stated: "why did they hire that person? I was more qualified than they were!"

Let me let you in on a secret, that shouldn't be a secret. The word "qualified" is very subjective. Meaning, how do you really justify who is the most qualified person for a job? By the person who scores the highest on the test? By the person who has the most education, training, or certificates? By the person who has the most experience? I think all of the above can be argued to make someone the most qualified. Take it a step further, but even if someone is qualified on paper to be a firefighter, it doesn't mean they are meant to be a firefighter or cut out for the rigors of the career.

In reality, all of the candidates who make it to the final hiring list are "qualified;" what now occurs is that most departments now decide who would be the best fit. I say most because some departments do hire straight from the top down on hiring lists, meaning they offer number one the first job, number two the second job, and so forth. But for those fire departments who even hire straight from the top down, there is a high probability they determined during the oral interview that the people who make the top of the list are those they feel are the best fit for the department.

However, it really started to dawn on me after I was scoring very high on oral interviews, and even making the top 10 lists of final candidates, but not getting hired, that I needed to look at what I was doing wrong. Was I overqualified (yes, I heard that a few times)? Was I under qualified? Was I not answering the questions the way they wanted me to? What was the problem?

Well, after two fire chiefs basically told me the same thing, it dawned on me what the problem was - I was not presenting myself as the best fit candidate for that department I was testing for. On one fire department's hiring list, I came out number 3, out of about 1,000 candidates. The fire chief flat out told me, "Steve, you're a highly qualified candidate, and I think you'll make a great firefighter, just not with our department." He then went on to add, "If I give you a job, you're going to be gone in 6 to 12 months to a bigger department that will pay you more money, offer you more promotional opportunities, and be closer to your home." Then, like clockwork, about two months later, I heard virtually the same statement from another fire chief, about three hours away from my home, where I came out number two on their final hiring list. It was like deja vu. How can you argue such a statement, and how do you honestly reply, without making it sound like you're blowing smoke or lying?

All I could think of in response was something like "Chief, while I respect your decision, I would encourage you to take a chance on me. I cannot honestly say I will do what you think I will do, but I will promise I will be the best I can be if you take a chance on me." What am I going to do? Flat out lie to him, deep down inside knowing he is quite correct? I would be a liar if I said, "no, I'll never leave." How could I honestly say that? Then, if I did leave, how do I not know that he is good friends with my new fire chief, and tells him "watch out, he is a liar." It wasn't worth it to lie. I just tried to be respectful of what they were telling me. One of those two fire chiefs did go on to advise me, "Steve, don't give up, there is a department out there. It may take you 20 or 40 or even 100 tests to find that perfect fit for you, but it's up to you to not give up and keep on testing to find that department." I didn't know how to initially take that comment, but looking back now, it really makes sense and I use that with candidates I work with on a regular basis, especially those that didn't get hired at their "dream department."

Well, your dream department may be just that - a dream. Don't lock yourself into one department being your dream department, you may be in for a let down if it doesn't work out, primarily because you portrayed yourself throughout and even before the hiring process as not being the "best fit" for their department.

So, does that mean you should stop taking classes, getting experience, or getting certificates to become a firefighter and just wait for the job to come to you? Of course not; you still need to continuously prepare yourself to be the best firefighter you can be. But, you would be correct to realize that the certificates, training and education your are trying so hard to obtain are only going to get you in the door to take the examination, assuming they are the minimal requirements. Yes, by getting your EMT or whatever local certificates departments you are testing for require, you are only doing so just to get in the door and compete with the other candidates. Many candidates think they'll get all these certificates to get the job, and fail to realize a majority of their actual competition will also be doing the same. So, how do you look different in a unique way to stand out?

By demonstrating to the department through the hiring process (which starts even before the department accepts applications, when you start meeting people who work for that department) that you are the best fit, which is not easy, but it can be done.

Let me explain something that should be common knowledge to future firefighters, but is not. You may think you want to work for a certain fire department, but in reality, you may not be a good fit for that department. The culture of that department may be just not right for you, or your culture might not be right for the department. Before you scream discrimination and threaten the department with a lawsuit for not hiring you because, realize a department has no legal obligation to hire you. Just because you applied for a position does not mean you are entitled to or guaranteed a position with that department. Unfortunately too many candidates seem to think they are owed the job or deserve the job for whatever reason they feel is appropriate, in their own eyes or mind.

There are fire departments of various types, sizes and make-up across the United States. Some are all career, some are all volunteer, some are combination (volunteer and paid), some are a combination of the above. Some have only one fire station, some have hundreds of fire stations within their department. Some protect economically depressed (the politically correct term for ghettos) areas. Some protect multi-million dollar homes. Some protect heavy industrial areas. Some protect predominately wildland urban interface. The list goes on and on. The point I'm trying to make is that virtually every fire department is different in some form or fashion than the fire department next door or in the next county or the next state. Different in what they protect, and even different in the type of individual they may hire.

In my experience, big city fire departments tend to have a different culture than small city fire departments. If you do your research and start talking to other firefighters, you'll start to realize some departments are very laid back and some are very militaristic in nature. In some fire departments, there is no such thing as accountability (or so it appears). In some fire departments, there appears to be constant micro-managing. It is what it is, and one person (you) are not going to change the culture or the make-up of the fire department you are testing for.

The firefighter that smokes the interview process for a big city fire department may not do well when testing for a smaller department. Why? Because each department may be looking for a different type of candidate, based on their culture and the types of candidates they tend to hire. Now don't confuse this with discrimination, which is possible if you do not fully understand or comprehend what you are dealing with.

Get over it and move on with life if you are not hired by a certain department. You may just have not been the "best fit" for that department, for that point in time. Remember, while participating in the hiring process, everyone associated with that department you are applying for is evaluating not only whether you will the "best fit," but more importantly, is it worth taking a chance on you to allow you the privilege of joining their family?

In closing, you may wonder how I finally got hired in the department I was hired at. How did I convince those four oral board members that I was the best fit? Think back to those two fire chiefs who told me I would leave their department for a larger department that paid more money that was close to home, and offered me more promotional opportunities. Here I am in the interview for my current department, and I think it is going pretty good. As I'm offering my closing statement to the oral board (where I state I have taken numerous firefighter tests but I want to settle down with this department), one of the oral board members asks me "Steve, why is it that you have taken so many tests, but have not yet been hired?"

Some candidates would not know what to say; I did, and I welcomed the opportunity to provide the following response: "well, thank you for asking that question, as I think I have a good answer." I told them of my recent experiences with both of the fire chiefs who had told me they thought I would leave. I then went on to say how it is time to settle down and focus on one department, after having spent countless time, energy and effort, not to mention money, preparing myself to be the best candidate I could be and the best asset for the department that offered me a job More importantly, I added that this department is that reason those two fire chiefs felt I would leave, and that I do not plan on leaving since you have all of those things I was looking for in a fire department. I guess I convinced the oral board members that I am here and I have found that dream department that I want to make a career at. Well, I guess it worked as I came out number three and was offered a job. I guess the oral board and the department felt I and the other 11 candidates who came out on the top of the hiring list were the "best fit."

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

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.

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