Preparing for Your Promotional Exam

Feb. 1, 2015
Michael Terpak explains the assessment center testing process and how it is designed.

In an ongoing attempt to produce the most qualified candidates to fill the ranks of fire officers, test development agencies are continually developing new and innovative methods for evaluating a potential company or chief officer. For many years, the only method used to evaluate a candidate’s ability to become a fire officer consisted of reading a series of books and answering a lengthy written, multiple-choice exam. As time and the demands of the fire officer increased, it became evident that we could no longer base a promotional testing process solely on a person’s ability to comprehend written material; there needed to be more.

Professional designed promotional assessment centers have become one of the most creditable methods for truly evaluating a candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities in the promotional process. Formatted and delivered in various ways, the assessment center’s ability to efficiently and effectively measure a candidate’s readiness has been the justification for its increased use, as well as a potential fire officer’s need to be better prepared. In order to score well, you need to understand the testing process and its design.

An assessment center is an examination process that is designed to simulate situations which are common to the rank being tested. Each individual exercise is designed to measure the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics of the individual candidate in a given situation. It is the belief of many within the promotional testing field that the oral assessment center is the most efficient and effective means of testing the knowledge of the candidate. The thought behind this is that it is simply a true evaluation of the candidate’s abilities. Specifically, either you know it or you don’t.

Promotional assessment types:

Over the years, we have seen varied test designs that seem to be continually modified in an attempt to increase the measurability and therefore the quality of the candidate. The ongoing changes seem to focus around the testing/evaluation agencies’ experience, the quality and measurability of the answer key and the individuals trained to evaluate and of course the money allocated to conduct the process. To help prepare you for the most commonly used forms of evaluating a potential fire officer, exercises in an oral assessment can be designed in a structured, evolving or interactive format.

Structured oral assessments will present a situation or incident with a series of questions that a candidate must answer in an allotted time frame. The questions are designed to elicit courses of action specific to the situation presented. There is generally little to no interaction between the candidate and the assessor during the exercise, thus the name “structured.”

In a structured oral assessment, candidates are required to answer the questions based on the available resources presented in the exercise, their responsibilities within the position/rank and their own technical knowledge of the subject. Resources can include the same resources the candidate could expect from his/her own department. Others will place you in a mock fire department and provide you with the resources you will need to answer the questions. Resources can include the units expected on the first alarm assignment, the type and size of your engine and ladder companies, to the information that would normally be available from a Department of Transportation (DOT) Emergency Response Guidebook.

An evolving exercise will present a changing environment within an exercise by introducing specific questions that the candidate will need to recognize and respond to. The evolving exercise is a more commonly used design since it reflects similar challenges a fire officer will be confronted with.

One of the more dynamic methods used in an evolving exercise is a deteriorating condition designed from a computer-based fire simulation. In an attempt to introduce as much realism as possible, the exercises are designed to present visual challenges that the candidate must respond to. In some of the more advanced computer-based exercises, fire conditions can improve or deteriorate depending upon the candidate’s responses. The exercise may even require communications whereby a portable radio is provided and the radio reports and their content will also be part of the candidate's assessment.

In an interactive exercise, candidates may have to exchange thoughts, ideas and concerns with a role player(s) to achieve the desired outcome. In this of type exercise, role players are scripted to respond to the candidate’s comments and actions in an attempt to elicit measurable responses. In another type of inter-active exercise, candidates may have to make an oral presentation describing a program or a training exercise where they will be asked questions from a group or role player. In many assessment exercises, the inter-active exercise is best reserved to measure the candidate’s supervisory and administrative skills.

Exam measurability

The design, implementation and evaluation of an assessment center starts with the gathering of information from the specific areas of responsibility for the rank being tested. For the test development agency, this starts with a job analysis for the rank/position being evaluated. Through a careful collection of information specifically designed to identify the roles and responsibilities of the company or chief officer, exercises and measurable courses of action are designed and developed to simulate an actual environment that a candidate may face as a fire officer. For the studier, this is a great place for a candidate to start his/her research. As a candidate, it is important that you understand the areas outlined in a job analysis and the importance of the individual subject areas that may be evaluated. Knowing the specific responsibilities of the position is the intent of a job analysis and where you should begin your research.

Exercise design and format

The exercise, or as it often referred, scenario, is the forum used for eliciting certain candidate behaviors needed to perform the job. A candidate’s performance during the exercise will determine if the candidate possesses the level of knowledge, skills and abilities to perform the job of a fire officer. Each exercise is designed to measure a number of behaviors. The behaviors or responses of the candidate are classified into categories referred to as performance dimensions. Dimensions are the tools assessors use to evaluate your performance.

Individual exercises vary based on the assessment center design and the rank being tested. As an example, some of the commonly used situations or exercises will often focus around the responsibilities of the company and chief officer responding and operating at an emergency incident. In others, supervision principles and practices of a fire officer in a specific situation will be assessed, and in still yet another, administrative responsibilities associated with officer’s rank will be evaluated depending upon the assignment and the task.

Measuring & evaluating individual performance

Having an understanding of what is being measured and evaluated by the assessors is the next step in your preparation efforts for an oral exam. For many, the anxiety of being in a testing environment that requires you to present your thoughts, concerns and actions orally is enough to unnerve even the most well-read student. Unlike a multiple-choice exam where the correct answer is in front of the test taker, the oral assessment requires you to orally demonstrate how you would handle a given situation or exercise. For most people, public speaking or speaking in front of a group is literally terrifying, to say nothing of the fact that your career is riding on your presentation. So how does someone attempt to tackle this personal challenge? There are a number of ways; one is understanding what is being measured and how.

Performance dimensions

Listed below are the performance dimensions that can be measured during an oral presentation. It is critical that you understand the meaning of these dimensions and not attempt to memorize them verbatim. What is important is that you understand the behaviors associated with dimension and that you are able to exhibit these behaviors during the assessment center exercises.

  • Technical knowledge. In the technical knowledge dimension, assessors measure whether the candidate’s responses represent an efficient, effective and safe course of action to the challenges being presented. Undoubtedly, in order to do well with the technical knowledge questions, you must be well-versed in the tested subject areas.

As many have said before, “knowledge is power.” As simple in thought as this quote may seem, it is an individual and essential trait that must develop from two resources: the candidate’s education and understanding of the subject matter; and his/her practical experience with the material. For many, this will come in the form of one’s education through referencing and reading. Reading, studying and reviewing documented principles and practices will provide the candidate with a knowledge base of information to refer back to.

Experience is an extremely valuable resource, but relying on your experiences alone is not enough when preparing for a promotional exam. As valuable as one’s “street smarts” are on the fireground, it must be supplemented with academics. It is common practice for test developers to give candidates a list of potential resources to study for their exam. Resources will often include specific textbooks, standard operating guidelines (SOGs), training bulletins and departmental policy and procedures to name the more common. What should be gathered from this thought is without a significant knowledge base of the tested subject matter; you will score poorly in this area.

  • Safety. This is the extent to which you address any safety concerns related to your firefighters, incident scene occupants, other emergency service personnel and the public. Safety is always an overriding concern in all-strategic and tactical exercises.
  • Incident scene management. This is the extent to which the candidate shows the ability to assign, manage and account for all individuals operating within or near the emergency incident. If any freelancing is detected anytime throughout your presentation, your score will be adversely affected. You must be prepared to identify resource allocation and assignment through the common use of divisions, sectors and groups.
  • Delegation. This is the extent to which you assign tasks to subordinates in order to effectively, efficiently and, depending upon the exercise, safely accomplish individual and organizational goals.
  • Problem-solving/decision-making skills. Within this scoring dimension, assessors measure the candidate’s ability to exhibit problem-solving and decision-making skills within their scope of responsibility as a company or chief officer. The one thing you will notice in this performance dimension as well as in a few others is the multitude of behaviors that can be measured. The number of behaviors that can be measured from this dimension will depend upon the exercise. Measurable behaviors within this dimension can include:
    • The candidate’s ability to recognize problems or concerns within his/her scope of responsibility.
    • The candidate’s ability to identify the source of problems or concerns.
    • The candidate’s ability to develop logical solutions for eliminating and dealing with problems and concerns.
    • The candidate’s ability to take organized action within his/her scope of responsibility.
  • Supervisory skills. Within this scoring dimension assessors will be measuring the candidate’s ability to take command of a situation or assignment to achieve departmental goals. Depending upon the exercise, this area can also be measured from a number of different responsibilities. Measurable behaviors within this dimension can include:
    • The candidate’s ability to identify tasks/assignments.
    • The candidate’s ability to delegate responsibilities and assignments.
    • The candidate’s ability to provide structure and guidance for carrying out those responsibilities.
    • The candidate’s ability to follow up to ensure completion of the task/assignment.
    • The candidate’s ability to recognize acceptable and unacceptable behavior and/or performance.
    • The candidate’s ability to interview, counsel and motivate subordinates.
    • The candidate’s ability to take disciplinary actions within departmental guidelines.
  • Administrative skills. Within this scoring dimension, assessors measure the candidate’s ability to effectively plan, organize, implement, manage and evaluate. This measurable skill is often reserved for candidates seeking a higher rank. Job analysis often shows that these skills fall within the responsibility of a chief officer. This is not to say that candidates studying for the rank of captain will not be assessed in this area. Due to rank structure and the responsibilities of those ranks within a given fire department, many departments around the country require a company commander to possess significant administrative responsibilities in order to perform his/her job. Again, this goes back to knowing the test subject areas for the rank being tested.
  • Attention to detail and directions: This is the extent to which your oral presentation provides an adequate amount of information concerning the topic/subject area being presented. Your responses and objectives must be specific to the subject and its questions, and it must follow outlined rules, regulations and guidelines. This dimension can be measured in any exercise.
  • Standards and initiative. This is the extent to which you possess an internal drive to excel or achieve personal and professional goals without being ordered, coerced or motivated by others. When an assessment center exercise is designed to measure this particular dimension, it is believed it starts to paint a vivid picture of the candidate’s qualities and capabilities.
  • Interpersonal skills. This is the extent to which you are able to relate with a wide variety of individuals in a positive and effective manner. This dimension is most notably measured within a supervisory or administrative exercise.
  • Adaptability. This is the extent to which you are able to effectively adapt to new situations you are confronted with.
  • Aggressiveness. This is the extent to which you come across as overbearing or abrasive to a role player or to questions from the assessors.
  • Attitude toward subordinates, superiors and the public. This is the extent to which your manner toward any of the above positively or negatively affects your ability to effectively accomplish individual or organizational goals.
  • Political sensitivity. Since a fire department is a public agency that deals with the public on a daily basis, it should be obvious of the need to possess this quality. In this dimension assessors determine the extent to which you are aware of the political ramifications of the content of your presentation. Specifically, does it negatively affect anyone?
  • Creativity, energy and enthusiasm. This is the extent to which your presentation is stimulating, positive and motivating. This is an excellent and necessary quality to possess for every exercise. You will do poorly within this dimension if you know little about the roles and responsibilities of the position being tested. Having a strong knowledge base of the material/subject matter being presented is the key to performing well within this dimension.
  • Composure. This is the extent to which you appear calm and under control during your presentation. This dimension can be measured in a number of different exercises. Examples may include your reaction and response to questions from the assessor or role player, time pressure situations in a fire, collapse or hazardous materials scenario or other pressured stimulus displayed during an oral exercise. It is a necessary quality of a fire officer; be prepared for it!
  • Just as composure is a necessary quality of a fire officer, so too is your ability to initiate action. Decisiveness is the extent to which you are able to initiate action when action indeed is necessary.
  • Organizing and planning. This is the extent to which your oral presentation is well thought out and delivered in an organized manner. This dimension is often reserved for a formal presentation that may involve a simulated training exercise, the possible development and presentation of a program or a procedure or the delivering of a speech to a civic group on a specific subject.
  • Oral communications skills. The ability to clearly and persuasively present information to a group or an individual can be difficult to master. Often, candidates who are studying for their first promotional exam have the most difficulty, primarily because the firefighter position and the responsibilities associated with it are not required to possess many of the skills outlined in the oral communications dimension. They need to develop them for the company officer position. This, accompanied with the anxiety of taking their first promotional exam, will often interfere with their ability to perform well in this area.

    The only way to “champion” this is to practice, practice and practice some more. This is not the type of exam where you read and read some more and expect to walk into the testing facility and do well. You have to put yourself in a mock environment and simulate what the exam will actually be like. From mock exercises, time constraints to even videotaping your presentation for further assessment, it is a must if you want to score on the top of the list

    Regardless of the rank being evaluated, the ability of a candidate to organize and express their thoughts, ideas and concerns is a measurable skill and requirement of a company and chief officer. If you can express yourself well during the exercise, you will not only score well within the oral communications dimension, but you will also make it easier for evaluators to identify whether or not you have the knowledge, skills and abilities to carry out the responsibilities required by the position. This is a critical component of your promotional exam.

  • Time management. Using your time wisely and efficiently is a measurable skill within an assessment center exercise. Your ability to organize and present your thoughts/responses in the allotted time frame of the exercise is a skill that will be cross-referenced and scored within your planning and oral communication dimensions.

To give you an example, typically you are given a varied period of time to prepare your presentation. Preparation times will vary based on the design of the assessment center and the exercises you are preparing for. With a fire, structural collapse and hazmat scenario, the candidate will be given a minimal amount of time to prepare, generally five to 10 minutes. The objective behind this approach is to force the candidate to act/respond quickly to the scenario presented, all in an attempt to simulate the rapid-decision making required in an actual emergency.

For the administrative and supervisory assessment exercises, candidates are typically given more preparation time, approximately 30 to 45 minutes. The added preparation time is given to simulate the additional time a fire officer would actually have in preparing for either an administrative or supervisory incident.

Presentation times for the exercises described above will generally range from any where from ten to thirty minutes depending design, dimensions measured, and the level/rank being tested. What is critical to note here is how the candidate manages and organizes his/her time.

It should be obvious that oral assessments will require a significant amount of preparation time. From understanding the responsibilities for the rank being tested, the potential exercises you can be involved with, and how an assessment team will measure your performance; preparing for oral assessment exam requires dedication, time and direction.

MICHAEL TERPAK has been in the fire service for 38 years, spending the last 34 years with the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department (JCFD), where he is assigned as a deputy chief and citywide tour commander. He is the former chief in-charge of the city’s Training Division and has been a fire instructor at state fire academies and is currently an adjunct instructor for the JCFD. Terpak is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey-based consulting firm designed to prepare firefighters and fire officers studying for promotional exams. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire safety administration from the City University of New Jersey and is the author of three best-selling books: Fireground Size-Up; Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics; and Fireground Operational Guides.

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