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3 keys to passing fire officer exams

As with any test, learning as much as you can about the test-giver, the test and yourself will pay big rewards


Taking time to prepare for the promotional exam will reap big benefits when it is over.

Photo/Halifax Fire

For many firefighters preparing for promotion to company officer, the process feels overwhelming. There is so much to know, from technical subjects like incident command and hazardous materials to management topics like conflict resolution and personnel management.

Where should you begin?

When preparing for any exam, it is always good to start by seeing the big picture. What will the test include and how will it be administered? Doing some research in both these areas will lead to better results.

Promotional tests can take many forms, but most departments will publicize what will be included prior to the actual test date. They should also inform participants about how the test will be administered.

Will there be a written section? If so, what topics will be covered? Will different sections of the process be weighted more or less compared to others? Knowing this information will allow candidates to prioritize their preparation efforts.

Know the exam

Many fire departments use assessment-center style testing for officer promotions, but these processes can have many variations. Some assessment centers are just traditional tests with some role-play activities, while others include leaderless group activities, simulations or problem-solving tasks. Being clear about exactly what types of activities are included in the process will increase confidence and performance.

Another important question is who is designing and administering the promotional process.

While some departments do promotional testing entirely in-house, many will at least include assessors from other departments. Increasingly, departments contract out the process to a company or organization that specializes in designing and administering assessment centers.

If this last option is the one your department selects, it is important to find out as much as possible about the contracting entity before the test. Get the name of the company or organization and go to their website to learn more about them.

Is it a local operation? Do they strictly do assessments for public safety, or is their scope of work more far-reaching?

Note: Some testing procedures have changed in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Testing processes might be more dependent on technology, so it’s important to prepare in this area, making sure you have access to adequate technology and that you are familiar with what might be required for the testing process.

Do research

Do they list past clients on their website? If so, do some follow up. Try to connect with people from other departments who have had experience with the company’s testing process and get as much information as you can. Keep in mind though, that promotional tests usually are (and should be) customized to a particular department.

Check out any links provided on the testing entity’s website. Many assessment center companies will provide tips, resources, and even practice test modules as part of their Internet presence. You might have to click on several tabs beyond just the opening page to find these resources.

Once you have a good idea what the test will include and who is giving it, your preparation can be more focused. Your next task will be to set specific goals as you prepare for the exam.

Start by making a list of the general topics you expect to be covered and then do an honest self-assessment as to where your strengths and weaknesses lie. It can also be helpful to ask for the honest opinion of a friend or mentor to make this assessment.

Focus on weaknesses

To maximize success, you will want to emphasize your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.

But keep in mind that the best fire officers are generalists, so being the best fireground commander will not compensate for being completely clueless about personnel management. Know your strong points, but spend most of your preparation time focused on building skills and confidence in areas where you are less strong.

For many firefighters, the personnel management portion of the promotional test will be where they feel less competent and confident. This is only natural — as firefighters, they have practiced and mastered technical skills for years, but may have had little experience in leading teams or resolving personnel issues.

They may have worked for officers with widely varying skills in these areas. They may be unsure how to balance being a leader with still being part of the crew. And they may have no idea how to prepare for this portion of the promotional process.

As with the rest of the test, start with the big picture. Know your department’s policies and procedures, but go further than just being able to reiterate a policy.

What does the policy mean? What are the department’s expectations for company officers as personnel managers? What kind of leader do you want to be?

Having a sense of personal mission when it comes to leadership is a good start with preparing for the promotional exam. But there is much more you can do to increase skills and confidence when it comes to the personnel management side of the process.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.