You should already know it is a must to visit fire stations in the department you are testing for. What you may not realize is that this station visit can hurt your chances of getting hired as much as it helps, depending on how you conduct and represent yourself. In many cases, especially in smaller departments, the station visit can act as a preliminary interview.
When it comes to the station visit, it is much more important to not make a bad impression, than it is to make a good impression. Let me explain. Department personnel are more likely to be vocal about someone they perceive as a bad candidate, then someone they perceive as a good candidate. It's similar to those bumper stickers on the back of company vehicles that ask, "How's my driving". Do you think they get more phone calls from people who are upset about their driving, or more calls from those wanting to compliment their driving? In part this is because it is human nature to be more vocal about something that has impacted us in a negative way, but also firefighters are hesitant to vouch for someone they really don't know, based on a 20 minute conversation. Firefighters don't want it coming back on them if the candidate doesn't work out well, so instead they often stay neutral unless the candidate raised a few eyebrows, in which case they may be very quick to say, "I'm not sure about that guy", or something much worse.
Below are 15 basic tips that will help you avoid making a bad impression and hopefully even help you to make a good impression and improve your chances of getting the job.
1) Make an appointment
Don't just pop in. It is acceptable to stop by and ask what time would be good. If you do schedule your appointment in person, don't expect them to say, "right now". However, at the same time you must be prepared if they do, meaning have your questions ready, be dressed appropriately and have your "offering" ready. Calling ahead and scheduling a time is preferred. It is better for the crew and allows you to better prepare yourself.
2) Be on time
This is an obvious one, but I mention it because it happens often. Treat the visit like any other portion of the selection process. Make an appointment and be on time for it. The crew will have you in the calendar, and be expecting you provided other duties or emergency calls don't arise. If no one is in the station, wait outside, even if the station is left open. If you need to go, leave a note explaining that you are sorry you missed them and will reschedule. You may also call and leave a message stating the same thing.
3) Always bring something
What to bring is up to you. Try to find out what the crew likes if possible. Be creative; donuts, ice cream, cookies, bagels and cream cheese are OK, but rather standard. Not everyone eats donuts and even many who do will wish you hadn't brought them. If you can make something yourself, that's great. It also shows you can cook. One candidate brought in a large bowl of homemade salsa and some fresh chips. It was a big hit and he was known as "The Salsa Guy" after that. Fresh focaccia bread from a quality bakery is another one that stands out and is different. One candidate brought in something homemade in a Tupperware container that had his name on it, which he left behind. We all remembered his name. He wasn't just "that candidate". Whether this was intentional or not, I don't know, but it worked.
4) Dress appropriately
Avoid department or academy shirts or other fire department attire. Wear nice, conservative, casual clothes. Whether or not you see it as, or want it to be, this is a preliminary interview, so represent yourself well by dressing appropriately. A button-down shirt, or "polo" shirt and slacks, with semi-casual shoes is usually good.
5) Be humble
It seems today humility is viewed as a character flaw, rather than an asset. The fire station visit is not your chance to showcase your knowledge and abilities. It is your chance to show your interpersonal skills, communication, passion, desire and interest in the department and personnel. The single most important thing you can convey during the station visit is that you "get it", that you know your place as a candidate and will know your place as a probationary firefighter. The majority of what comes out of your mouth should be intelligent questions about the department, service area and operations. Yes, I said intelligent questions. Contrary to common beliefs, I do believe there is such a thing as a stupid question. I have heard many of them.
6) Be prepared
Know what you want to ask and learn from the crew before walking in. Have a check list ready and something to write with. I have provided a basic check list which can be found on our articles page. It is titled, "The Least You Should Know, Before the Interview". Expand upon it and cater it to the specific department you are testing with. One way you can do this is to familiarize yourself with the department and service area beforehand by doing your own research. You will be able to ask more specific questions and come off as a much more informed candidate than if you walk in cold. Drive the area and take notes, and read up on the department by going to their web site and learning as much as you can. This will help you formulate good questions and start to fill in the blanks on your check list prior to your visit. You will also not overwhelm the crew with dozens of basic questions that you could have answered on your own. Doing so looks bad and wastes their time.
7) Introduce yourself
Make every effort to introduce yourself to everyone on the crew. Do not wait for them or expect them to come to you. Some will; some won't. It is your job to introduce yourself. Do so when entering a room and make sure you also thank everyone and say good bye to everyone before leaving the station. Also, address officers by their rank and firefighters as Sir or Ma'am or Firefighter "last name".
8) Don't play the comedic card
The fire station visit is not the place to try to exhibit your sense of humor. It is not the appropriate time or place and it is too risky. If you find yourself around a group of fun loving jovial firefighters simply enjoy their humor. New guys should just observe the group dynamic and not try to join in or fit in. It's like going to see a stand-up comedian and trying to contribute to the show. In this situation you are the audience, not a performer. Remember, every Comedian loves a great audience and lives for a reaction. No comedian likes to be upstaged.
9) Don't wear out your welcome
The visit should be brief. Pick up on signs that it is time to go. Do not interrupt a meal, or stay for a meal even if asked. It is rarely a good idea to do so, but you will need to feel out the crew and use your best judgment.
10) Don't name drop
If it comes up in conversation and is appropriate to mention any mutual acquaintances, that's fine, but some candidates go out of their way to name drop and it can work against them, rather than for them. Be aware of how this may be perceived and avoid it.
11) Remember names
If you have visited other stations you should remember the names of the other personnel in the department you spoke to. This is not name dropping. Telling one firefighter that yesterday you spoke to a tall guy with dark hair and a tattoo and he told you about your EMS system, doesn't sound as good as telling him you spoke to Firefighter/Paramedic Jones and he explained your EMS system, but you had a few more questions. It shows you were paying attention and cared about those you spoke to and the information they gave you. It is a subtle way of expressing your interest in the department and personnel.
12) Don't make yourself at home or get too comfortable
Understand you are a guest in their house. Observe all the basic rules of common courtesy that apply. You should be as courteous as you would be if you were meeting your fiancés parents for the first time. Try to use the restroom before you get there. Don't show up hungry with food and need to eat when you get there. Don't sit until asked to be seated, all things that should be common sense and common courtesy.
13) Be positive and enthusiastic
There is nothing worse than having a candidate come in and seem bored or as if his station visit is a chore. Be positive and upbeat, but not over the top, that is equally annoying. I have seen guys come in half asleep and others who appear to have just smoked some crack. You should be genuinely excited to be there, but not peeing yourself. Schedule it at a time when you will not be rushed, tired or otherwise distracted. Don't wait until the day before the interview either. This is not a good idea for many reasons and could add to your stress.
14) Don't wait until the last minute
If you are traveling a distance for the exams, you should try to schedule some station visits while you are there for the initial portions of the selection process, usually the written and physical. Waiting until you get invited for an interview may give you little to no time for a station visit. Plan ahead. There will be many candidates wanting to schedule station visits just prior to the interview and it sometimes gets overwhelming for the crews. If you schedule yours early it will be more convenient for them, they may have more time and interest in talking to you and it shows more interest than those who waited until two days before their interview.
15) Walk away informed
Make sure you walk away with information you can use in the interview process. This is the primary point, so don't forget to pay attention to details, ask useful questions, understand the answers and write them down so you can commit them to memory. In my opinion knowing and understanding the departments operations and service area is much more important than knowing the name of the city council members, or board of directors and will be more useful in the interview. You should gather an arsenal of useful information that can be used throughout the interview. It may be asked directly, but even when it is not asked for, this information can still be appropriately and intelligently incorporated in to responses to many questions. The proper use of this information can make the difference between a good interview and a great interview. Also try to find out what you can about the interview process itself. It is a good idea to ask what you might expect during the interview and if they know who will be on the interview panel. You may be talking to the same person that is going to be interviewing you or talking to his or her very close friend (and they will talk about you). If you can get some information about the interview itself and the personnel who may be on the interview panel, this can be very helpful. Knowing your audience is always good. Finding out their areas of specialty, interest, or special programs the interviewers run or are passionate about can help give you an idea of the best way to respond to certain questions. The crew may also be able to clue you in on the types of questions the department typically asks. The station visit may or may not be an opportunity to get this useful information. I recommend asking some basic questions about the process and seeing how much information they are willing to divulge. More often than not you will get some great information that can help you better understand what to expect and help you put together the best possible responses.
Remember the station visit can help your chances or hurt your chances depending on how you represent yourself and what information you walk away with. Following the above basic rules will help you make a good impression and make the most of your station visits.
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