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How firefighter candidates can overcome a DUI

A DUI or other blemish is far from ideal; it is also far from fatal to your firefighting aspiration if you play it right


The burden of proof is on you to convince the powers that be that you are not a repeat offender.


“I got a DUI on my record. Can I still get a job in the fire service”? This is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive.

The short answer is, “It certainly won’t help, but it can be overcome.”

To understand how you can overcome this blemish in your past and achieve your career goal, you must first put yourself in the fire chief’s or hiring personnel’s position.

The most important trait any department is looking for in an employee is their ability to uphold the law and the standards of their organization and not bring any harm to the department or it’s reputation. Second, is their ability to perform the job and do so effectively over the course of 20 to 30 years.

A DUI shows evidence that you may not be able to do either. A DUI is a clear indicator of poor judgment and a potential addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

So how does one prove otherwise to a department head? How does one convince them that they will not drink and drive again and not have a problem with alcohol and drugs?

Burden of proof

Most candidates feel that simply time and a good proven work history since the incident is enough. Time does help, as does a proven track record of responsibility.

But it does little to prove to a prospective employer that you have truly learned from the experience. It is not enough to convince them that you are not the same person you were at the time of the incident and will not be a repeat offender.

Statistics show that one in every three drunk drivers arrested are repeat offenders. If you have a prior DUI, statistically you are much more likely to get a DUI than someone who has a clean driving record.

Given this fact, why would a chief take a risk on a candidate with a prior DUI arrest when there are so many other candidates to choose from?

The burden of proof is on you to convince the powers that be that you are not a statistic. This involves more than a well-rehearsed interview response. Actions speak louder than words. You need to take action.

Two candidates

To highlight how to effectively make your case, consider two hypothetical firefighter applicants. Both candidates have a DUI on their records.

Candidate One got a DUI when he was 23. He paid his fines and went to the mandated classes and did his community service. He is now 26 and has had a good steady work history and a clean driving record since his arrest.

Candidate Two also got a DUI when she was 23. She paid her fines, went to the mandated classes and did her community service. She also got involved with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) as a volunteer.

She goes to local high schools to talk to teenagers about the dangers of drunk driving. She helps set up booths, hand out literature and speaks publicly to the kids and young adults about her personal experience and the lives that have been lost due to drinking and driving.

She is now an advocate against drunk driving and has been volunteering her time in this capacity for two years.

Actions over words

Both candidates walk into a chief’s interview. Without knowing anything else, what is going to be the fire chief’s likely reaction to each candidate regarding their life and learning experience from their arrest?

Which candidate is more likely to be a repeat offender, or have a potential problem with alcohol?

The interview and hiring process is all about perception. It’s pretty clear which candidate will have a better likelihood of being perceived as a good potential employee.

Going above and beyond in this way can be applied to any prior blemish on your record. It’s your job to convince your prospective employer that you are a person of integrity who can be trusted with the responsibility of a fire service career.

If you have a blemish, do something proactive about it to prove you truly learned from your mistake. Never play the victim. Take ownership of your mistakes, right any wrongs and become an advocate for a cause to show you will not be a repeat offender.

If you are willing and able to do this and sincerely mean it, then you will have a much better chance of overcoming your past.

This article, originally published in 2015, has been updated.

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.