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Firefighter candidates: be ethical, not an ostrich

Fire departments need candidates with a strong sense of ethics who will not embarrass or harm the department

It is common for fire departments to ask a question during the oral interview related to a hypothetical situation that requires the applicant to make an ethical decision.

Expect to be asked what you, as the probationary firefighter, would do if you witness another firefighter using illegal drugs, drinking or possessing alcohol on duty, harassing or behaving inappropriately (even illegally) towards a co-worker, stealing from a residence or business while on scene, or even cheating on an examination.

First of all, why would a fire department ask such questions of candidates? First, because these incidents happen regularly.

Don’t believe me?

Do an Internet search on terms such as those mentioned above or just simply type “firefighter behavior” or “firefighter discipline” and you’ll have scores of hits. Or just go to and see for yourself some inappropriate activity, much of it while on duty.

Second, fire departments ask such questions to evaluate your ethics, values, integrity, honesty and morals.

Revealing character
The sad part is that many candidates when faced with such a hypothetical question either put their head in the sand like an ostrich — deny it can even be occurring — or choose to say nothing because they don’t want to cross the “red line,” be a snitch or be someone who destroys the brotherhood by throwing a fellow firefighter under the bus.

I remember asking one candidate why he would do nothing when we outlined what appeared to be a firefighter using illegal drugs. He said something to the effect of firefighters are the most upstanding, honest individuals and would never do something like that, so it can’t be true.

I wanted to tell him that he was clueless and naïve to think that way, but I couldn’t given the situation. Had he paid attention to what is going on around the country via social media and the Internet, he would have been better prepared to answer that question.

He failed, obviously.

We have a sign on the wall in our academy that states, “We don’t test character; we reveal it.” It means that we put candidates through a battery of tests to evaluate their character (oral interview, background investigation, polygraph evaluation, psychological evaluation, etc.) prior to the academy.

Making the call
People can mask their true character and sneak into the academy. However, once you are put into that academy under high-stress situations and with teammates and instructors who are challenging you, your true character comes out — sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a not-so-good way.

Sometimes that is why candidates are released from the academy or put on probation — because of character flaws that were finally revealed. Don’t let that be you.

It is probably impossible to find a human being who doesn’t have to make an ethical decision on a daily basis. That includes firefighters of all ranks and in all parts of the country.

In the more than 20 years I have been in the fire service, I can’t remember a day I have not had to make an ethical decision — either on duty or off duty. Sadly, many people don’t invest much time and effort into thinking in advance how they will act when facing an ethical dilemma.

As someone who is entrusted to serve the public, paid or volunteer, the highest standards and values must drive your ethical decisions so as to not lose the public’s trust.

Six pillars
Look at the surveys that evaluate the level of trust in various professions; firefighters usually rank in the top three. We cannot take this for granted as repeated bad behavior will erode that trust.

Making the wrong ethical decisions leads to disciplinary action like termination, suspension or demotion, not to mention public scrutiny and embarrassment.

One of the best resources I have found to help guide ethical decisions is “The Six Pillars of Character,” by the Josephson Institute. These six core ethical values form the foundation of the Character Counts youth-ethics initiative.

If you are not already using most if not all of those six traits, I highly encourage you to do so. Knowing right from wrong and making that knowledge part of your daily behavior will help show a fire department that you are worth their time, effort and energy to hire as a firefighter.

Steve Prziborowski is a former deputy chief for the Santa Clara County (California) Fire Department, where he worked since 1995. Prziborowski is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor, has earned a master’s degree in emergency services administration, has completed the EFO Program at the National Fire Academy and has received Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC). He is the author of three books: “How To Excel At Fire Department Promotional Exams,” “Reach for the Firefighter Badge!” and “The Future Firefighter’s Preparation Guide: Be the Best Firefighter Candidate You Can Be!” Prziborowski was honored with the CPC Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership Legacy Award in 2020. Connect with Prziborowski on his websites, and, or on LinkedIn.