6 Tips to Prepare for the Assessment Center

Dec. 15, 2014
Henry Morse shares six ideas to help prepare for the assessment center portion of the firefighter hiring process.

Many fire departments use assessment centers during their hiring process to better evaluate the candidates. Assessment centers usually consist of two or more of the following exercises:

  1. Written presentation
  2. Oral presentation
  3. Tactical scenario
  4. Role play
  5. Group problem solve
  6. In-basket

There may be a panel of three examiners who are looking for demonstrated behaviors such as

  1. Technical knowledge – tactics appropriate for the situation, SOPs, pump pressures, etc.
  2. Ability to deal with uncertainty and pressure
  3. Generating an effective outcome
  4. Properly recognizing and utilizing available resources
  5. Relative composure – not melting down in panic
  6. Attitude and appearance

So, to put it simply, to prepare for assessment centers we must prepare to deliver those behaviors.

One vital thing to keep in mind is that while this will seem like something big and scary happening to you, which it is, a better way to think about it is as something happening to them – the examiners.  They will issue a grade based on how they feel after your various interviews and exercises, not how you feel.  That’s important.  And it has the added value of reducing your anxiety if you focus on this as an event happening to them, not to you.

So how should we prepare to deliver what they want?

Technical knowledge - There is no substitute for knowing the material.  You must know it.  You must know your SOPs, the proper rule-of-thumb pump pressures, basic tactics for structure fires, vehicle incidents, hazmats, confined space, employee management, etc. – whatever the scope is of the position you are applying for. That information should be clearly specified in the testing announcements or by asking. It never hurts to ask either.  You may get an answer.

Assessment centers vary too in how specific they will be to your department.  They may ask what you would do using Crash 60, for example, or they may simply say “you have three engines, a truck, a squad and a chief.” The scenario might be a particular commercial occupancy in your actual jurisdiction, or it may be a generic two-wing nursing home.  Neither format is better or worse than the other.  Both are acceptable.

So to prepare, make a list of typical scenarios you might encounter, such as medical, car wreck, room and contents dwelling fire, restaurant or night club fire, or, depending on the rank you are testing for, presentation to the town council, press release, larger scenario with other jurisdictions, possible terrorism incident, etc.  When you have made the list of say, a dozen typical scenarios you might be dispatched to, take each one, imagine that this is your testing scenario and tackle it.  Assign yourself typical resources, draw a picture, literally, place your resources, write down your orders to the various units, reasonably evolve the results and write those down, what you would do next, etc. 

Really do it.  Give yourself a dozen typical scenarios and then make yourself actually conduct them.  You could even team up with some others to do this exercise.  Doing this will make you realize whether you really do know the SOPs that pertain, really do know the tactics, or not.  If not, go get that information.  This applies equally to fires, other types of incidents, and management problems.  Do you know, for example, what the SOP is in your department about sexual harassment?  You better know if you’re applying to be a company officer.  

Ability to deal with uncertainty and pressure - Sometimes, on real calls and on these exercises, the thing will just keep burning.  No matter what you do.  Or you will have conflicting or missing information.  A normal human being would likely freeze with indecision.  Well, as an engineer or fire officer, you don’t get to be a normal human being.  You must act.  Can you prepare for this?  Not really.  But you can realize that it is in fact an indulgence to freeze up – a luxury – one that you cannot afford.  So give that some thought and prepare yourself, both for these exercises, and for real calls, to move ahead and act even with incomplete or conflicting information – after making sure that the information you need is not available. Always ask. It may be available, if you only ask. "Com center, have we received any further information about where the people are trapped?" Maybe yes, maybe no. 

Generating an effective outcome - Again, try to shift focus from how this is affecting you, to how it is affecting those in distress.  It’s truly not about you – an odd thing to say when it is you being examined, but it is true.  Fix this thing. Results matter.  Force entry, order resources, breach walls if you have to, but get it done.  There is no “A for effort.”  At the end of the day you must solve this problem, as far as it can be solved, and recognize when elements of it can’t be solved.  This is an attitude trait, and an important one.  The key to preparation here is attitude.  Do your best.  Mute down the cries and engine noise and chaos of the scene and concentrate on the basics, fix the problem.  You know what to do.  Don’t allow yourself to be dazzled by all the distractions.  Stay focused and get water, get tools, get what you need and stop this problem from continuing.

Properly recognizing and utilizing available resources - New engineers and officers can get tunnel vision. They can bogged down in one element of the problem and forget to notice that there are five guys from the factory right there waiting to help you with information or other resources.  They may feel desperate about how to ventilate and search at the same time and forget they have two engines in staging. They may forget about the crews in rehab who have now been there for 30 minutes. They may forget they can call human resources and ask what the sexual harassment policy is, or how to proceed exactly on a complaint. 

Remember to reconsider your resources from time to time. Perhaps every time a PAR is called. Always order more than you need, ahead of the time you are going to need them, rather than play catch-up. Examiners will rarely disapprove of ordering more resources. Make good use of those you have, and show that you are doing that. When you do your mock exercises described above, include what resources you will use, need, order and deploy. Be specific.

Going into the exercise remember that you are not a foot soldier here. You are a commander. Foot soldiers use tools, commanders use foot soldiers. That’s appropriate. Mentally prepare yourself to make assignments of people, not take action yourself with tools.

Relative composure – not melting down in panic - This is a stressful event for you. Correct.  It is a psychological cocktail of different types of stress.  It includes the pressure of testing, the fear of public speaking (to the examiners), the pressure and/or urgency of a situation you must handle, the unknown, and other things. You wouldn’t want to do this for a living. (So to speak, since you are testing for the right to do precisely that). And it may be that this is not for you, or not at this time. If you realize that you are truly in over your head or getting sick over this, then don’t do it. Preparing for this will include some soul-searching.

Most likely you will be highly stressed, but perfectly able to do all that is asked of you. So, bear the stress, concentrate on the task at hand and before you know it, it will be over. Just try not to flashover in panic, no matter what. Again, panic is an indulgence you give up the right to when you become a firefighter.

Attitude and appearance - What do you want in a subordinate?  You should want their full and undivided attention, alertness, responsiveness to you and your orders, common sense, specialized sense, and no distractions, no noise. Also, a neat and professional appearance. Get a haircut before the test. Shine your shoes. Press your pants. Show up with a full night of sleep behind you, mind clear of other distractions. Don’t go talk to the bank about your mortgage application on the way to the test site. If you’re going to have an argument with your spouse, don’t have it today. Arrive early, but don’t go in early. Stay in the parking lot. But don’t risk getting caught in traffic and being late.

Give 100% of your attention to the examiners, their instructions and the scenes or situations described to you. Focus only on that, and when it’s done, don’t loosen your tie until you are back outside in the parking lot. Don’t make small talk, but respond if they do. It’s all business for them. They have you and 10 other people to get through today. They want in, out, results, next.  Give them that…along with a dose of professional appearance and 100% concentration on task. Get in, get out, make yourself unmemorable to them. Leave them only with a handful of good outcome, good results, good impressions of you – which, ironically, means little impression of you personally. They don’t want that, there’s no place on the forms for that, they don’t care if you’re a nice guy or gal, a good person, or how this is affecting you personally. They want results. But your name will be on the top of the scoring sheet.

Finally, if such a thing is available, attend an assessment center prep workshop. Your jurisdiction may be providing that for you, and if so, it will likely be put on by the same testing company doing your actual assessment center.  Take advantage of it.  What you do now, in preparation, will determine in large part how well you do on this test; and how well you do on this test will affect your career from this day forward.  Do your best.

HENRY MORSE, BA, MA, BA, NFPA Instructor Level IV, is the president of Fire Service Testing Company, Inc., which tests emergency services jurisdictions across North America for entry and promotion of personnel. Author of a number of books, including Emergency Services Personnel Testing Practices (2013), Preparing for Emergency Services Testing (2005), and others, he is a member of the NFPA 1001 Technical Committee and speaks on these topics and others related to testing and communication.

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