2 killer tips for acing your entry-level fire service interview

For me the firefighter interview process was a lot like my golf game, inconsistent and frustrating. Here's how I fixed that.

Updated March 25, 2013

For me the firefighter interview process was a lot like my golf game, inconsistent and frustrating. I usually interviewed,… OK, just like I usually played an OK game of golf. I made it to many chief’s interviews, sometimes scoring well and sometimes not so well. Just like in golf where sometimes my tee offs and chips were perfect and some just seemed to go seriously awry.

In both golf and my interviews, I never really knew what went right, when it went right or what went wrong when it went wrong, or how to correct it the next time. I just kept playing and hoping that I’d improve. After years of doing both, interviewing and playing golf, neither seemed to improve, in fact I think they both worsened over time.

The more I thought about my golf swing and the interview questions, the worse and less consistent that I seemed to score on both. Fortunately, for me I eventually sought the help of interview coaches. I never sought the help of a golf coach though, because, quite frankly, my golf game wasn’t that important to me. Getting a job, however, was, and I did whatever it took to improve myself as a candidate. As a result, my golf game hasn’t changed, but I have had multiple job offers in the fire service. This means that I now have 20 days a month to play terrible golf.

If you wanted to improve your golf swing what might you do? One might hire a coach to tell them what they’re doing wrong and what they are doing right and what changes need to be made. That instructor may use a simple tool called a video camera, so you could see firsthand what they are talking about.

1. Videotape yourself
One of the best ways to prepare for an interview is to
video tape yourself during a mock interview. This can be done by yourself, or by having others actually run you through some questions. Mock interviews are good, but video taping yourself during a mock interview is the best way to improve your interview presence. When the video camera is pointed at you, it gives you a perspective that you otherwise can never get. This perspective can provide you with invaluable information that you need to make some changes to improve your interview skills.

I give this advice to every candidate that asks me how to improve their interviewing skills. Those that do it, agree that is very helpful. I learned volumes about myself as an interviewee, after seeing myself for the first time on camera. I was able to make some adjustments to my posture, body language, volume and overall presence that made the difference between placing in the top 20 and placing in the top 3. I recommend placing the camera in the position of the interviewer’s eyes. This will give you a glimpse of what they see.

Wear whatever you would wear to an interview and treat it like the real thing. I sat in a room alone and asked myself questions while the camera was rolling. Playing the tape back and seeing myself as the interviewers did worked for me and I'm confident that it will help improve your interviewing skills. You are your own worst critic, so critiquing yourself will probably be most helpful, but you also need to seek some outside input. Try to seek the help of an interview coach that knows the fire service interview process and I always recommend getting advice and opinions from more than one person.

The interview process is very subjective, so seeking out advice that is well rounded is important. The interview is also very personal, so what works for one candidate, may not work for you. You will need to develop your own style. You can’t be something you’re not, but you can make adjustments to how you present yourself. Understanding how you are presenting to a panel is of utmost importance. This is why you will need both a video camera and objective, honest and experienced evaluators to critique you.

2. Be an interviewer
Another experience that helped to improve my interview skill’s, was having the opportunity to be an interviewer. Sitting on the other side of the interview table I learned a great deal about the process. One thing I learned, is that what one says, isn’t nearly as important as how they say it. I always focused on coming up with the best text book answer.

Years ago, when a previous department I worked for was interviewing for part-time positions, I sat on an interview panel for the first time as an interviewer. My panel had a candidate that said all the right things, hit every key point and by the book nailed every answer. My reaction was, wow, he nailed it.

After the candidate left I saw how the rest of the panel had scored him and was surprised to see average to below average scores. I said, “I think he did really well”. They all turned to me and said, “Yah, but would you want to work with that guy”. This shows you how subjective it is. I scored him high and others on the panel scored him low. I must admit, he was robotic, unfriendly, very serious and just came off downright unlikeable. I was grading him on his responses and the rest of the panel was looking at everything else.

The next candidate was the complete opposite. This candidate didn’t even answer the questions, but was very likeable, friendly and humorous. He received higher marks. This is an example of how subjective the process can be and why your presence is so important.

Since then I have been on many interview panels and found this to be very common. However, different departments and different interviewers will take a different approach to the process and ranking the candidates. If you are being interviewed by the department staff, they will be looking at your experience and background, but mostly they will be asking themselves if they would want to live and work with you for the next 20 years.

Sometimes interviewers are instructed to NOT give any verbal or non-verbal feedback and to remain as objective as possible. In this case they may remain stone faced throughout the interview, so that each candidate has the same interview experience. This can be very unnerving for some, but know that this is most likely because they have been instructed to do so.

It is also important to be aware of how long, tedious and boring sitting on an interview panel can be. Interviewers are often conducting interviews for several days straight. If you think you as the interviewee has a tough job, it is nothing compared to what the interviewers have to go through. They also have the responsibility of selecting the best candidates for the job after seeing dozens of people for just 20 minutes in a very structured setting. This is not an easy task. Taking this into consideration and placing yourself in their shoes when preparing for the interview may be helpful.

Consider how you can capture their attention in a positive way, keep their interest and stand out amongst the large numbers of other well qualified candidates. The candidate that does this gets the job.

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