Firefighter Promotional Exams: It's Bigger than the Goals that We Set

April 28, 2023
Ben Wescott believes a perspective regarding a promotional exam that considers the effort as much as the results is good for one’s soul.

This promotional exam was different for me to say the least. Before this test, I was a “bad test-taker.”—not just in the fire service but since I was a kid. Throughout elementary and high school, I needed to rely on other means than just the results of tests to get passing grades. I developed and utilized the ability to verbalize my understanding of the content to the teachers. I also added a few smiles and some charm to help to convince them that I learned the information, and for the most part, it worked, but charm doesn’t help with promotional exams.

Over the past few years, I have become a very different person, because I have learned about resilience and have implemented it into every aspect of my life. I deployed a few resilience tools to approach this promotional exam.

How to study & support

Before the test, I did Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to focus on my mental blocks about studying and test-taking. I uncovered a crippling self-doubt and a lack of confidence in my own intelligence. It was astonishing to trace back to an elementary school teacher who used testing and failure to threaten to hold me back a grade.

I searched through my network for a very successful educator to help me to truly understand how to study. She taught me how to schedule study time, set goals and organize the concepts that I needed to revisit along the way.

Through the entire process, I also got messages from other mentors and friends. Their messages weren’t about the how-to or next step. They simply were messages of support, and they taught me that if I have supporters, it’s impossible to give up. It held me accountable.

I studied more in three months than I had in my entire life. I spent time away from my wife and children, friends and family. I used every last drop of four orange highlighters, seven gel ink pens, five composition notebooks, half a ream of printer paper and countless flash cards. I had set a goal that “I will pass this test,” and I was determined to do it.

Where the rubber meets the road

Test day arrived. At 6 a.m., I sat in the parking lot of the test site brushing up on pump calculations and the city map. Thirty minutes prior to the test, Mom and Dad called to wish me luck. My wife called while she drove the kids to school, and our oldest son said a prayer for me to do well.

I got a call from my EMDR specialist, too. She asked how I felt, and I told her, “I am calm and uncomfortably confident.”

This test felt different. I checked in, took my seat and, as the rest of the people began to take their seat, I said a prayer: “God, sit with me this morning. Help me recall the things that I have learned and to accept the things that I don’t know.”

I knew what my two weak spots were going to be, and sure enough, the first 20 questions were the most difficult map questions that I ever saw. Weak spot No. 1. I felt sick.

The next section was about pump calculations, my second weak spot.

As I sat there, I felt an old feeling creeping in: self-doubt. However, I recognized it and knew how to stop it. I dug into my personal resilience strategy and pushed on.

An hour and 40 minutes later, I handed in my completed test. Seconds later, my Scantron was graded, and the test score was written on a small strip of paper and folded. I didn’t look. I slid the paper into my pocket and walked out of the room.

The test results

My captain had come to the test site to see how three of his crew members did on the test. I was standing alone in the parking lot when he walked up.

“You good? How’d you do?”

I was honest with him and told him that I hadn’t looked. He put out his hand, and I handed him the paper.

I had passed—76 percent—but I wasn’t going to be promoted. Even with seniority points added, the score wasn’t going to be enough.

I took a breath and headed back over to the other members who finished and waited as the rest trickled out. Some passed, some didn’t. A few knocked it out of the park. We all laughed and talked as the weight of the stress was lifted. I witnessed a brother from my crew realize that he topped the list, and it truly made me happy.

I was proud, but I wasn’t. I was having a difficult time seeing the victory over a lifetime of being the “bad test-taker.” I wasn’t going to be promoted after all of the work that I put in. I knew it wasn’t a waste of time, or was it?

I sent a text to my wife: “I passed but not high enough to promote.” She sent one back: “OK.” Not another word. Not “I’m sorry” or “Screw them.” She didn’t blame me for wasting time. That “OK” was the most comforting thing that I ever felt. After 16 years of marriage, I knew exactly what that meant: She knew I would pass. Her one-word response said more to me in that moment than a thousand hours in therapy ever could. I found comfort knowing that she was going to be home in a bit, and she’d let me spew my frustration, worries and fears. She would let me unpack it all, and everything was going to be OK.

A life lesson

I needed to tell my kids and felt that it was important for them to see that their Daddy passed his test. I made a plan to be excited and high-five them about passing the test.

You can’t fool a kid. My eldest man-child hugged me tightly and said, “So, you are going to be the driver now!”

“Um, well, no. Some others got a higher score, so they will be the driver.”

Then the question that I dreaded came out like a slow-motion softball pitch.

“So, all of that studying was a waste?”

Once you find resilience and allow it to take over your life, it changes you. It changes your entire mindset. It changes the very fabric of your being. There is a concept of being where your feet are. It’s about being present in the moment that you are in and taking advantage of that moment.

A moment in time just presented itself in the form of a nine-year-old’s gut-check question to his dad. I’m proud that I caught that moment and used it to teach my son about life.

“No, son, it wasn’t a waste of time at all! I needed to pass that test, and I worked my butt off to do it.”

I got an opportunity to both tell and show him that you can accomplish anything that you put your mind to. I taught him that just because you worked hard doesn’t mean that you will be No. 1. Further, not being No. 1 is an awesome way to find out where you can improve for the next test. If I allowed this to be a waste of time, I would have admitted defeat to copy paper and enough ink to print out 1,000 multiple choice questions.

My boys now have seen what resilience looks like. It’s about how you bounce back, then keep moving forward. It’s seeing God close a door that’s right in front of you and having the faith to knock on the next one. My sons now have this moment in the back of their mind for when they walk through their own battles.


I don’t know how many years of riding backward I have left or when the next test will be. What I learned is that this promotional exam was much bigger than just something that I needed to pass; it was about the importance of personal resilience, the tools that are used to build it and how it can change your life.

My next step is to sit by the firepit with my wife and kids to burn some marshmallows for smores. I’ll continue to grumble about the crap questions on that test, but I promise that those questions won’t get me next time.

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