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From application to interview: Tips for prospective firefighters looking to join the ranks

How to put your best foot forward at orientation, what to expect in the physical and aptitude tests, and other tips for firefighter candidates


Present yourself with professionalism, be respectful and always put your best foot forward, even during seemingly routine or casual interactions.


It has been a while (to say the least) since I applied for my first position in the fire service, but I’ve been on the flip side of the equation for many years now, serving as part of hiring processes for both my departments, and reviewing candidates being admitted to the State Fire Academy. I’ve observed hundreds of applicants and candidates as they go through the process of becoming a firefighter, and have some words of wisdom to impart from those experience and from talking with other fire service leaders.

Every moment counts: Put your best foot forward

Competition for a spot in any recruit class is usually vigorous. Our department is currently selecting approximately 20 candidates for our 2021 Recruit Class beginning in January. We started with approximately 65 applicants, and most of this year’s group appear to be aware that they have about a 25% chance of making the cut.

Many of the candidates came to Fire Headquarters to obtain or return an application to become a recruit. One thing that all applications must realize is that every step along the way, even from the time they walk in to pick up their application, they are most probably being casually observed by either a member of the staff or the training division. As such, present yourself with professionalism, be respectful and always put your best foot forward, even during seemingly routine or casual interactions.

Orientation observations: Think job interview

Our 65 applicants were all invited to an orientation that outlined the process, from being an applicant to a candidate and then selection as a recruit. Amazing to me, there were several no-shows, which automatically dropped them from the rolls, and thus whittled down the early numbers.

It was interesting to observe how some of the candidates dressed for the orientation. No one expects prospective firefighters to show up in a suit and tie, but we also don’t expect gym shorts, a ball cap and a T-shirt. Most of the candidates knew enough from experience to dress in a nice shirt and pants, similar to how one would dress for an interview.

“Lombardi Time”: 15 minutes early

During the orientation, the candidates were told that the first two elements they were to attend were a 1.5-mile run and what our state calls the Personal Physical Evaluation, better known to most as a Physical Ability Test (PAT). These are the moments when the gym shorts, sweatshirt and running shoes are appropriate; however, by the time it came to the PAT, the number of candidates had dwindled to 38.

Part of the candidate elimination process involves timeliness. Everyone is given a check-in time for the PAT. Several candidates cut their check-in close to a minute or two, and one literally ran from his car to the check-in, arriving with less than a minute to spare.

This was a good time for me to teach the candidates the value of “Lombardi Time,” so named for the legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, who made it clear to his team that if you weren’t ready and present 15 minutes ahead of the practice time, you were late.

Physical ability assessment: Yes, firefighting is hard work

The candidates had been invited to watch and practice the PAT, but you could feel the tension in some as they awaited their turn and didn’t want to mess up, even when given two chances to pass. The evolutions were done with partial turnout gear – helmet, gloves, coat and an SCBA harness and bottle without having to be on air.

The PAT loosely mimics the actions firefighters complete during the Firefighter Combat Challenge. The first of four elements included climbing five floors and hoisting by rope a rolled 2½-inch hose to the fifth-floor balcony. The second was striking a sled with a sledgehammer, simulating the moves for ventilating a roof. The third was dragging a charged 1¾-inch line 50 feet, then opening the nozzle to spray water. Lastly, they had to carry or drag a rescue dummy 100 feet. These elements had to be completed in 7 minutes or less.

Over the years, I’ve had several candidates, successful and unsuccessful, who left the training grounds saying, “This is hard, no, I really mean it; this is very, very hard.” Yes, it is! Firefighting can be very hard, which is why we train and have physical conditioning.

Aptitude assessment: Yes, firefighting is also cerebral

Following the successful completion of the PAT, most departments have their candidates take some form of a standardized aptitude test, primarily covering reading comprehension and math, designed to indicate who has the skill and grade-equivalent levels to be successful in completing the firefighter, EMT and paramedic curriculums. This testing has shown that most paramedic curriculums require a grade-equivalent level of a freshman or sophomore in college.

For this testing, our candidates were again given a check-in time at our computer training center, and warned that, especially at night, it is difficult to find as it sits down a relatively long driveway out of sight from the main road. The training captain indicated that they had to arrive 15 minutes prior to their starting time to complete several required forms to take the aptitude tests. I suggested that those candidates not familiar with the computer training site find it before their test date – again a reminder of Lombardi Time.

Interview insights: Be polite, honest and sincere

Those candidates who are successful at this point are usually invited by the department to an interview, consisting of a panel that can include instructors as well as company and chief officers. During the interview process, the candidate is rated on appearance, general presentation, and on their answers to a series of standardized questions. They are also given time to ask the panel any questions they may have about the future recruit class or the fire service in general. The type of questions asked by the candidate can help determine their level of comprehension and dedication needed to successfully complete the recruit class.

It’s essential to be polite, honest and sincere throughout the interview process. The interview panel wants to begin to know the real you, not to judge you, but to begin to mentor you toward your goal of becoming a firefighter.

Under review: Do you have a clean record?

Following the interview, many departments require candidates to sign a voluntary agreement that allows the department to run a routine background check covering their driving, credit and any law enforcement contact. The candidates are also told that if they are successfully chosen for the recruit class, any driving or law infractions must be reported to the lead instructor no less than three days from the date of the infraction.

[Read next: How firefighter candidates can overcome a DUI]

Payment process: Consider your options

Some departments run recruit classes for several departments in their area and charge that department a tuition fee. Those candidates chosen for the recruit class receive their training at no expense, as it is covered by the department; however, the recruit can opt to pay the tuition themselves. Departments that cover the expense for their recruits may require that recruit to agree that, upon successful completion of their training, they will work a designated period of time for their sponsoring department, or have the obligation to reimburse the expense of their training on a prorated basis.

The recruit training not only is a gateway to a career in the fire service, but also is conducted at a level accepted by most community colleges as credit toward an associate degree.

Future advice

In the future, we’ll discuss some advice for recruits as they work through their training to become probationary firefighters, plus the do’s and don’ts when assigned to their first station within their department.

Stay safe!

Editor’s note: What advice do you have for prospective firefighters? Share in the comments below.

[Read next: 11 requirements to become a firefighter]

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.