One mistake that I have seen some candidates make is focusing entirely on either becoming the best firefighter or becoming the best firefighter candidate that they can be.
Some focus all of their energy on being a great firefighter, but don't do anything to improve the skills required to obtain the job they are so well prepared and trained for. As a result, many struggle to get hired, while others focus entirely on being a good candidate and study the selection process, almost exclusively. The problem with this is their lack of knowledge and passion for the job itself often comes through and makes them an undesirable candidate.
In this profession and competitive job market you must work on both knowing the job and knowing how to get the job in order to get hired and succeed.
How to be the best firefighter
Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. One such resource is our website, FireRecruit.com. If you find yourself just logging in and going to the job search page without reading the news articles, or viewing the videos and reading all the site specific articles available, you are missing out on some valuable information that will assist you in your career and career pursuit.
Seek other resources, such as trade magazines like Fire House and Fire Engineering. They can be found in any firehouse throughout the country. Don't just look at the cool pictures — do some reading. The contributors to these magazines are amongst the most respected fire service professionals in the world. Other great resources such as FireRescue1.com, FireNuggets.com and FireHouse.com have enough information to keep you busy for a very long time.
Seek out training opportunities. Taking fire science classes is great, but there are many classes, seminars and expos that will compliment your fire science courses. Many offer one- of-a-kind hands on training and are taught by the most knowledgeable and respected instructors and fire service professionals in the country. These are great opportunities to go above and beyond what your community college is able to offer you. Seek them out.
Never stop taking classes. If you have obtained your Associates Degree in fire science that's great, now get out there and take more classes. I do not recommend taking fire officer classes before you get hired. Many would disagree with me, but I encourage you to take classes such as Driver Operator, 1A and 1B, Rescue Systems I and II, Confined Space, Swift Water Rescue, Ladder Company Operations, or any class that is related to basic tactics that you as a firefighter will need to know and perform. Do not put the cart before the horse — focus on being a good entry level firefighter and save the fire officer classes for after you have some time in. You will not get as much from officer courses until you have worked as a full-time firefighter for some time.
Consider paramedic school. Consider paramedic school, but only if you want to be a paramedic, not because you want to be a firefighter. After four years of testing I was considering going to paramedic school. I was talking to a local firefighter, now a fire chief, who I admired, and I asked him his thoughts. He was a paramedic, and he asked me if I wanted to be a paramedic. I said, "Not really," and he said "then don't go to paramedic school." Simple and obvious advice, but advice that many don't take. The fire service is full of paramedics that don't want to be paramedics. Many older paramedics feel that the fire service ruined paramedicine for this very reason. The rising demand for paramedics in the 1990s created inferior schools, lowered standards and created inferior paramedics.
Ask yourself this — when your mother or grandmother calls 911, do you want someone showing up that didn't want to be a paramedic and only went to school because he wanted to be a firefighter. I know I don't and I don't want to be that guy either. If you have a passion for EMS and desire to do the job, than do it and do it well. But don't do it in hopes that it will land you on an engine where you can be a bad paramedic. The fire service cannot afford any more bad paramedics. In my opinion, one should only enter paramedic school after they have worked as an EMT on a private ambulance company for at least six months. This will be helpful in both determining whether you want to be a paramedic and assist you greatly in the process of becoming a paramedic.
Lastly, keep going to college if you have the means to do so. Just because you have an Associate's Degree doesn't mean you stop going to college. Pursuing a fire service job is like trying to become a professional athlete. Not everyone will, make it, and even the best and most suited may end up on the injured reserve list and never see their dream realized. Have a back-up plan, which may include a college degree in another field. It won't hurt your chances of getting hired as a firefighter and it never hurts to be qualified to do something else.
How to be the best firefighter candidate
Take every test you qualify for and can afford to travel to. One reason so many people wait to take tests or avoid exams is due to their fear of failure. You must overcome this in order to succeed.
Put yourself out there and test everywhere. It is when we step out of our comfort zone that we learn the most. You should also know that you can write off all your travel expenses on your taxes. Keep your receipts for hotel rooms, gas, airfare, food, etc. as well as proof of the test itself, such as the letter from the department inviting you to take the test.
Ask for help. This means take advantage of those who offer things such as mock interviews. If no one is offering to help you, chances are you aren't making contacts or networking in the right way. The fire service is full of people willing to help you, especially if you show promise. Take advantage of this and always take advice with the understanding that you are getting one person's opinion. When people you have reason to respect tell you something, or when you hear multiple people telling you the same thing, you know it has some merit. Ask for help and take the advice that is given.
Think about the hiring process — and beyond. Study and train for the hiring process not just the job. These are two different things and they both require time and energy. You can count on having to take a written, physical and series of interviews to get hired in most departments. Prepare for all of these steps. Study what you need to score high on the written, not just pass it.
Written exams are often used as the first test to reduce the number of candidates and often only those with the highest scores are invited to move on in the process. Know your strengths and weaknesses and work on both.
The same applies to the physical agility tests. Know your weaknesses and focus on them. Train regularly, learn proper and safe exercise techniques and work with a trainer if necessary.
Find and work with an interview coach. All parts of the selection process are important, but the interview is your opportunity to stand out amongst the rest and usually is used as the final evaluation tool to rank you on the hiring list. If you are weak in this area, find someone to help you and work to help yourself. See our articles under "Hiring and Testing" for more advice on this. You can get help from some of our authors through sites such as www.911interviews.com and www.eatstress.com.
Clean up your act. The fire service is a conservative group who live by old fashioned rules of conduct. In a time when people and businesses are getting "looser" and less conservative, it is of utmost importance that you still understand and abide by old fashioned values and basic rules of conduct and courtesy.
You are at a huge disadvantage if your parents and families did not teach you traditional values, and many families these days don't. Parenting styles have gotten less strict and things that were once not tolerated seem totally acceptable. Times have changed, but the fire service hasn't changed at the same pace.
Learn fire service manners, rules of engagement, common courtesy, chain of command, conservative and acceptable fashion styles and always know your place — and stay there.
Learn the proper way to engage with fire service personnel, always with the utmost respect, humbleness, courtesy, and awareness of how you are being perceived. It's very easy to end up on the blacklist list and not even know it, because you just don't get it! Don't be that guy/girl. I have seen many of them.
In summary, being a good firefighter and being a good firefighter candidate are two different things that require very different sets of skills. You can be one without being the other, but the best way to improve your chances of getting hired is to understand what it takes to be both and to work on them simultaneously. You must be self motivated and pro-active.
Unlike other professions that have a clear career path laid out, schooling, internships, etc., the path into the fire service is usually much more vague. It is left up to the candidate to figure things out and find his/her own path. No one will hold your hand through this process, so get out there, be proactive and pave your own path. This is all part of the test to see if you have what it takes.
Questions and comments are always encouraged. Feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.