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7 tips for passing the firefighter oral board

Success in the firefighter interview is about far more than answering the questions


It can be an intimidating process, but preparing for your meeting with the fire board will help alleviate some apprehension.

Photo/Eric Linnenburger

The fire department hiring process can be one of the most intimidating and elusive entry-level employment experiences one will face. It takes most people a couple tries to simply become comfortable with the process and numerous attempts to land that dream job.

My department recently hosted an entry-level recruitment. Our panel evaluated over 150 oral interviews across 10 days. Having been involved in numerous interview panels in recent years, I have witnessed many common themes that often contribute to one’s success or failure.

There are many great articles, books and coaches to help with the questions themselves, and you should read and study them all. However, there’s so much more to the process – and you need to prepare for all of it. Following are seven recommendations to consider when preparing for and navigating the oral interview. Remember, being prepared does not mean being canned or robotic. Strive for a level of preparedness that allows you to speak naturally and confidently regardless of what questions come your way.

1. Know the job

Understand what it means to be a firefighter, beyond the surface level. This is a big job with life and death implications. Know what it means to be a public servant and to put service before self. Speak with firefighters. Find out what an average shift entails and the types of calls for service. What is it like to live with your coworkers for 24 or 48 hours at a time and be part of a team?

Furthermore, why do you want to be a part of this? Why will you be successful and what makes you a good fit for this profession and organization? Go deeper than, “because it is cool” or “the schedule is great” or “I am an adrenaline junkie.” Onboarding a new firefighter is a huge investment for an organization financially and in time and resources. Most importantly, it is a huge sacrifice for you, the new firefighter, so make sure it is right.

2. Do your homework

Research the department. The job skills may be similar across the industry, but every department is different and should be treated as such. All have their own personalities and egos. The people who are part of the hiring process are typically doing so because they care deeply for their organization.

At a minimum, study the department’s website. Understand the department’s structure, size, and basic fire and EMS service delivery. Are there specialty teams or units? Read documents such as annual reports, strategic plans, etc. What is the mission, vision, values? If allowed, go a step further and do a ride along or visit a station. There is no better way to learn about the culture and understand key issues and current events than by interacting with those doing the work. However, do be respectful and ensure that contact with crews is allowed, especially during an active hiring process. Do not cold call fire stations and demand information.

3. Focus on the process you are in, not what’s next

Read the job description and job announcement thoroughly. Are there common themes or identified needs? For instance, there is difference between a department requiring multiple certifications or specific years of experience versus a department willing to offer all the necessary training after hire. This will impact how to present yourself and prepare for the interview. If experience is required, you should be ready to be tested on that experience. If no experience is required, the department may be looking for trainable people who match their values – life experience may be just as important as fire or EMS experience.

Follow all instructions in the application. Your attention to detail is being evaluated. If there are required attachments, attach them. If you are told not to include anything beyond the required attachments, do not add unnecessary items. Fill out the application fully and proofread it. If asked to answer short answer questions, “N/A” is not a suitable answer. Approximately one-third of our applicants did not move past the application phase simply for not following instructions. Details matter, especially in this job!

4. Know yourself

Do a personal inventory of life, work and professional experiences that correlate to the job or that showcase your values. This does not mean only firefighting and EMS-related experiences. What makes you, you? What are your values and how do you live them? These experiences should be naturally interjected throughout your interview and all phases of the process. Do more than say the words. Everyone says they have integrity and that they, “do the right thing when no one is looking.” Go deeper. What does integrity mean in the fire service, and specifically, how do you display it as a public servant?

This is especially true for our past and present military service members in the hiring process. Your story matters and we want to hear it! You do not have to rehash combat stories, but who better to display service and what it means to be dedicated to something bigger than oneself? Personally, I would much rather hear about years of working overseas in diverse teams of all different sizes, than say, 6 months of volunteer firefighting experience.

5. You are being evaluated from start to finish

Everything you do from first contact with that fire department matters, even years before a recruitment process. Ever hear “telephone, telegraph, tell a firefighter”? Word gets around. This works both ways. Always present yourself professionally and emulate the values of the organization. We have had people score very well in an interview only to find out they treated support staff or even a citizen in a way that did not match our values, and they were instantly removed from the process.

Additionally, you may not be graded on your personal appearance, but act as though you are. If questioning whether to wear the suit or your “dress jeans” to the interview, opt for the suit. Also, do not be memorable as the person who wore too much cologne or smelled like you just came from the gym. It is distracting to the panel and reflects in their overall impression.

6. It’s not only what you say but also how you say it

Understand “the why” behind the different phases of a hiring process and be able to articulate it. Demonstrate attention to detail and do not cut corners. In the interview, focus on the question and understand the intent behind it. Formulate your answer in a way that proves understanding. If you need clarification, ask for it.

When you speak, the words you say are important but will only become believable when delivered effectively. Attitude matters. Show some excitement. Display a humble confidence throughout the process. Remember, you are asking to be part of something bigger than yourself. You are being tested on whether you will be successful as part of this team. The fire service needs people with strong individual skills and values but who can use them in a manner that proves value to the team. Be someone for whom others are willing to sacrifice, and most importantly, be willing to sacrifice for others.

7. Finish strong

If you are asked at the end of the interview if you have questions or anything you would like to add, it is your opportunity to close strong. Be prepared for this. Bring some energy and leave a good last impression. Think about anything you missed, clarify anything that may not have hit correctly, thank the panel, and reiterate why you are the one for the job.

Regarding questions, many YouTube interview coaches recommend asking the panel questions to finish the interview. Keep in mind, many of these coaches are preparing people in the private sector for skilled corporate jobs. If you have good questions that display your excitement, understanding and curiosity for the job or the process, ask them. Just be mindful to not “interview the interviewers” with questions that could be easily answered from the website or asking awkward questions like, “do you like working here?” First and last impressions matter, and many a candidate has had a good thing going and buried themselves at the end.

It is all worth it

The fire department hiring process can feel overwhelming, exposing and bring anxieties to the surface you did not know existed. Those on the other side of the table understand and expect the nerves. You will not be perfect and will certainly say things you wish you could take back. You will also leave things out that you wish you had said. It is OK! Come in prepared and control the controllable factors to give yourself the best chance for success. There is good reason for such an involved hiring process. It benefits the organization and the candidate to find the right fit. This is a big job that comes with great responsibility. It is also the greatest job on earth and one worth fighting for.

Eric Linnenburger is a 24-year member of the Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department, currently serving as interim deputy chief of operations. With the WFD, Linnenburger has served as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in applied science with a business of government specialization from Regis University and an associate degree in fire science technology from Aims Community College.