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Leading the Team
by Linda Willing

2 ways to prep for the fire-officer exam

The human resources parts of the text can be the hardest; knowing the content and practicing scenarios will help

By Linda Willing

Many firefighters who are considering taking the promotional test for company officer say that preparing for the human relations part is the most intimidating aspect of the process. As firefighters, they have spent years honing their skills in a technical sense and improving technical intuition secondary to that experience.

As a result, many experienced firefighters do an excellent job sizing up emergency scenes, deploying resources, and carrying out tasks related to fire and emergency medical response.

Those same firefighters may not have nearly the same amount of confidence when it comes to dealing with human relations issues such as discipline, conflict resolution, and coaching and counseling. Few firefighters gain much if any experience in these areas prior to being promoted.

Yet more and more, company officer promotional processes focus on these more interpersonal skills. Firefighters who want to maximize their chances of doing well on promotional testing will put time and effort into preparation for this part of the test.

Know the process
Every testing process is different, so it is always a good idea to get as much information about the process you will be participating in as far ahead of the test date as possible. Will there be role play? Will candidates have to respond to scenarios, either in person or on video? What kinds of problem solving challenges will be included?

Many officer tests include general types of problems in the area of human relations. These problems often include ethical dilemmas, conflict resolution, coaching and counseling, and decision making.

For example, specific types of scenarios related to the general topics might include:

  • Responding to the offer of an inappropriate gratuity while on a fire inspection or emergency scene.
  • Deciding what to do if you find out a coworker has cheated on a test.
  • Acting as a mediator between two firefighters whose interpersonal conflict is escalating.
  • Dealing with a member of the public who is angry at the fire department for some reason.
  • Coaching a firefighter who seems insecure and unassertive on emergency response.
  • Imposing discipline on a firefighter who has violated a department policy.

Policy wonk
How can a firefighter prepare for these types of human relations challenges? For each of these problems, consider both the content and presentation elements as part of preparation.

Content in some ways is the easier part. Know the policies and procedures of your organization. These would include disciplinary process, requirements of documentation, standard policies and practices, and obligations to report incidents up the chain of command.

Most departments have clear policies about things like accepting gratuities or coming to work late. Know what these policies are and what the company officer's role is in enforcing them.

Judgment call
Many promotional tests will include scenarios that are deliberately ambiguous and that require a judgment call on the part of the person taking the test. Think about some of these gray areas.

Are there times when you don't need to act? Can you handle some incidents just within your crew without reporting up? How will you handle a spontaneous problem, such as an angry outburst from a coworker at an emergency scene?

What are your obligations when it comes to complaints by the public? Under what conditions must you involve higher authority in any dispute or conflict?

Then, practice. Modern technology makes this easy. Use your smart phone or another video recorder and enlist a friend or family member to help out.

Act it out
Then actually develop some role plays and record them from start to finish. A review of these videos can be hugely beneficial.

It can be uncomfortable to watch oneself on video, and you may fall into the traps of being either dismissive or hyper-critical. Pretend you're watching someone else as you review the videos.

Notice the details. Are you making appropriate eye contact? Is your voice clear and confident? Watch out for distracting mannerisms, nervous laughter, or an inappropriate tone of voice.

While it is possible to do this kind of preparation on one's own (maybe with the help of a family member) it is even better to do it with someone else from work who has a stake in the process.

This person might be someone who has recently gone through the promotional process, or even a friend you are competing against in the upcoming test. The collaboration will only make you both better, and this is good for both the individuals and also the department.

Assessors on promotional tests generally agree that the biggest problem for most test candidates is not core knowledge, but confident presentation. Know the test, know your material, and then spend time becoming comfortable in conveying that knowledge through practice role plays, group problem solving tasks, or individual response or presentation.

With solid preparation, you can then relax on test day and know you have done your best.

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.



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