Six Tips for Success During Your Next Fire Service Promotional Interview

March 24, 2023
Steve Prziborowski believes that knowing how to do more than just ‘pass’ will help you to distinguish yourself from other candidates.

Not everyone who is in the fire service has a desire to promote, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. We need good leaders at all ranks in the fire service. Yes, I wrote that—leaders at all ranks. This includes those at the firefighter and engineer ranks, which typically don’t have any supervisory or management duties within their job description.

For those who are determined—or at least considering—to take a promotional examination (engineer all the way up to fire chief) to get the badge of their dreams, chances are there will be at least one oral interview, which you not only must pass but do your best to be ahead of the competition. These will consist of one or two initial panel interviews, including with personnel from within or outside of your department, who usually are at least one rank above the position you aspire to. These people usually did the job that you seek and supervised personnel in that position.

There also is a good chance that you will interview with the fire chief, the fire chief’s command staff and/or someone who might be your future supervisor. It’s one thing to “bluff” your way through the first oral board with personnel from outside of your agency who might not know you. It’s another thing to sit in front of your fire chief and your command staff and have them cross-examine answers that you provided during your initial interview (based on notes that were provided to them), ask you questions about your past performance, ask questions more personal than the first panel posed and ask questions to determine whether you will be the best “fit” for the position.

Below are six tips for success during your next promotional oral interview.

Understand what ‘they’ are looking for

This is one of the most common questions that I hear from candidates: “What do they want to hear?” or “What are they looking for?”

Who are “they?” They could be the panel members who usually are one rank above the position that you aspire to or your fire chief and/or members of the command staff.

There usually is some form of grading sheet in front of panel members/interviewers, so they can note comments (that hopefully will be shared with a candidate later for the sake of training and continuing education) and provide some form of score for your performance.

Panel members/interviewers obviously look for candidates who listen to the question to provide an answer that’s asked of them. (You’d be amazed how many candidates provide an answer to a different question.) However, answering the question alone just means that you might get a passing score—a score that isn’t high enough to be considered for the actual promotion.

Panel members/interviewers look for items within the tips that I will cover below, but they also look for low-maintenance individuals who they would like to supervise, work with or work for (possibly in the future); individuals who are self-sufficient, self-starters and go-getters; individuals who won’t be more trouble than they are worth.

They look for individuals who are trainable and life-long learners and who can hit the ground running, particularly if there are immediate openings.

They look for individuals who have leadership potential for the rank they aspire to as well as future promotional opportunities. They look for individuals who are willing to take ownership and demonstrate pride in their new position, who will do the right things for the right reasons (those who they serve).

They look for individuals who always will represent the community, the organization and the fire service as a whole in the best possible manner, who put service above self and realize that it’s “we,” not “I.”

They look for individuals who will do their best to take care of their personnel, including provide a safe and harassment-free environment.

Last but not least, they look for individuals who will serve the community in the best manner possible, ensuring that the mission of the organization is carried out in the best interest of the community and of the people who are the focus of the oath of office that we take.

If you haven’t asked your fire chief, command staff and those who are in the position you aspire to what they look for, you’re missing out on valuable advice and guidance. If anything, it can provide a great road map of items to focus on for future success, not to mention provide you with access to mentorship and relationships with others that can pay dividends in the long run.

Understand the testing process

This should go without saying, but preparing for the position while understanding the testing process isn’t as easy as it might sound.

Too many just try to study to pass the test without putting context to all of the information that they use to prepare for the promotional process. They can regurgitate information to pass a written examination or repeat what they believe that the oral interview panel wants to hear (including saying what they believe are the latest and greatest best practices or buzzwords), but if they get further questioned, they can’t relate anything worthwhile to support their answer. Answers such as that usually come across as very shallow given their lack of not just context but detail (examples and other supporting statements), too.

Yes, it’s critical to understand (and prepare for) what the promotional process consists of and what each event (oral interview, written examination, tactical exercise, role play scenario, etc.) will expect of you, so you can navigate the process. It’s even more critical to prepare for the position.

It’s funny when candidates say that there was a trick question or a curve ball thrown at them during an interview. I tell them that the oral panel is there to see them succeed, not fail. Any perception of a “trick question” means that the individual didn’t properly prepare for the position that’s sought. A good example is going into the promotional process not expecting a question about managing a certain personnel-related issue in which a crew member crossed the line ethically and violated department policy. If you just memorize the policy manual and the steps to take during a disciplinary process, without considering how those actually apply and play out, your answer will demonstrate that you never thought about how to actually apply the policy in the real world upon promotion.

Most importantly, the time that you decide to go for promotion is the time to start thinking and acting like the position, so you can demonstrate to others that you are ready to be the person in the position. Know the position you aspire to inside and out—as best as you can through extensive research, because you aren’t yet in it—and be able to demonstrate that to the oral panel.

In all of the oral panels I have sat on, this was probably the number one reason that candidates didn’t score as high as they wanted to or should have: They came in testing and acting like the position they currently held, not the one that they aspired to. The best candidates are ready to go upon promotion; they demonstrate ownership they already are taking, because they already are acting that way every day.

There is a saying: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Don’t forget it. 

Know yourself inside and out

Those who do well on oral interviews provide interesting and unique stories about themselves and things that they experienced throughout their life and career. Also, know (and be able to articulate here and in all of the following items) how you prepared for the position throughout your career in the form of education, training and experience:

  • Be able to provide at least three character strengths and to support each with an example as well as a tie-in to the position
  • Be able to provide at least three character weaknesses that you are working to improve
  • Know your goals upon the promotion, during the first shift, first tour, first month, first 90 days, first year, five years down the road, etc.
  • Know your vision, mission, leadership style, etc.
  • Know why you want the position
  • Know where you stand ethically (you probably will be asked hypothetical questions that are related to personnel matters) and how you will perform not just your leadership duties but your supervisory and management-related duties as well, because all three are required of officer positions, but all three have different times and places

Regarding strengths and weaknesses, many look to find the best strength or weakness without sounding like everyone else. There is no perfect answer. The great answers are ones that can be detailed and complete, with not just unique and interesting experiences provided but with stories that only you can tell.

For example, when entry-level firefighter candidates are interviewed, a common question is “Why do you want to be a firefighter?” Most answer along the lines of to help people, to give back, to fight fire and save lives, to serve, etc. Those are all (bare minimum) passing answers. The best scores go to those who are different and provide an answer from their own experience. When I work with candidates to help them to form a unique answer for that question, I start with, “What got you into taking classes to become a firefighter?” There usually is some unique experience or situation that made them decide that they were going to go all-in. (Usually, most don’t decide to apply for positions out of the blue.) I encourage them to tell that story to, yes, sound unique but also to be interesting and to show worthiness for the position. The same goes for someone who wants to promote to captain “for more responsibility and more challenges.” Ditch the canned response.

Know the department, community inside and out

Know your policies, procedures, guidelines, etc. Know the portion of the budget that’s allocated to your department, because it provides a wealth of information on the goals and objectives for the next year.

If your department has a strategic plan, business/master plan and/or a standards of response coverage document, take the time to not just read them but understand them. Those documents are the blueprint for the future and provide a lot of valuable information on where the department is going.

Community demographics (population, square miles, target hazards, challenges, etc.) are a given if you already worked there for some time.

Take the time to actually read and understand the city budget, which includes not just the finances but also the key leaders of other city departments and what those departments do, because, chances are, you’ll interact with them at some point the higher up that you go.

Demonstrate passion and enthusiasm

I consider this to be a stand-alone section, because so many candidates have a smile on their face and are full of passion and enthusiasm when they walk into the interview room, shake everyone’s hand and get ready to convince the panel that they are the best thing since sliced bread. Unfortunately, once the hands are shaken, the candidate sits down and the questions start, most candidates lose the smile, lack the passion and enthusiasm, and come across like robots, with, at best, minimal oral communication ability. They sound monotone and answer questions rapidly or briefly, in the hope of getting out of that room as quickly as possible.

Not only does demonstrating passion and enthusiasm show that you are an excellent oral communicator, it helps to make you stand apart from your competitors, because it reflects confidence and leadership traits.

If you don’t say it, you don’t get credit for it

Not every oral panel will have access to your résumé and/or application materials (if any). Even if they do, it’s possible that you won’t get credit for the written information unless you state it verbally.

The same applies when panel members/interviewers know you and vice versa. Don’t assume that you automatically get full credit for your greatness or things you did. It’s naïve to assume that everyone (even those who are close to you) knows everything (particularly key points) about you. If there are key points, typically in the form of accomplishments, that you want to get across, it’s necessary to state them and possibly even provide an example that ties the key point to the position. This eliminates the possibility that something doesn’t fly over the head of a panel member/interviewer while you rattle off words left and right.

Your best self

It’s been said that more people are fearful of public speaking than of dying. Don’t let that be you. Take the time to properly prepare yourself for the position as well as the process. That can calm your nerves and allow the real you to come out during the interview.

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