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Steve’s mailbag: Advice to troubled firefighter candidates

These three letters seeking advice represent common worries of firefighter candidates facing not making the cut

Unless you live in a protective bubble, there is no one way to keep yourself completely safe from serious injuries while testing to become a firefighter. And there are other injurious things candidates can do to themselves to derail their career hopes.

However, many injuries can and should be prevented. This is as true, if not more so, for the lifestyle choices candidates make.

If you get seriously injured, you run the risk of not being able to attend training classes such as EMT school, paramedic school, or a firefighter I academy. You also run the risk of not being able to continue in the hiring process if you are unable to make an appointment related to the hiring process — such as your written test, physical ability test, oral interview, etc.

Don’t expect the department to make special accommodations to allow you to continue in the process. There are too many other healthy candidates able to continue.

For those of you who remember Dear Abby, here are three samples from the correspondence I receive seeking my advice on becoming a firefighter.

Hidden injury
“Hey Steve, I dislocated my clavicle, and I’m signed up for the firefighter I academy that is starting in two weeks. I need six to eight weeks to heal. Do you think I can still attend; I’m still in good shape? I’ve already waited a long time to get to this point to have to wait another semester (the next academy begins in eight months). What advice do you have for me?”

If you are injured in any way that will compromise or potentially compromise your ability to perform the duties expected of you (especially during a firefighter I academy), you will not be able to continue for liability reasons, among other things.

The last thing a fire department wants to happen is to have you re-injure yourself (assuming you try to participate before you are fully rehabilitated) or delay your ability to get yourself back to normal. They also don’t want to own your personal injury as a workers compensation claim.

My advice is to not put yourself in situations like this where you may have to turn down a job or request a job offer be postponed until you heal. And, be honest with your prospective employer should they inquire about the injury

“Steve, I am letting my EMT license expire because I have a DUI on my record and have found it extremely difficult to be considered for any jobs. I think I’m just going to give up trying to become a firefighter.”

That is obviously an option, and life is about choices. While I cannot tell you what to do with your life, I can suggest that you take a serious look at what you are currently doing and where you want to be.

A DUI will hurt your chances of becoming a firefighter. Yet, fire departments do hire firefighters with DUIs on their record.

If you do have something serious like a DUI on your record, you better have a lot to offer a department — more than what all the other folks who do not have a DUI will be offering.

Nobody can ever know if you’ll ever get hired or not with anything on your record. However, if you give up, you’ll never know. If you keep on trying, there is still a chance you may be hired.

Reformed rule scoffer
“Dear Chief Prziborowski, My driving record is, well, let’s just say bad. My offenses range from car accidents (yes, plural), speeding tickets (multiple), license suspension, carpool violations, no proof of insurance, illegal U-turn, running a stop sign, and also parking tickets.

“In past years, I did have an identifiable issue with traffic laws and more or less with rules in general. My violations were intentional; I was immature, careless and not responsible.

“There is no doubt that I am a different person today, with respect to rules and laws, especially relating to safety. My driving record has reflected this. I had no citations for over a year, until two weeks ago when I made an honest but dumb mistake (illegal U-turn) and was cited.

“How can I convey the honest and realized change in attitude and behavior in light of this recently acquired violation to my background investigator? I know I will need other actions besides following the law in order to convey my repentance, changed behavior, and lessons learned.”

There is no easy answer. Like at a hazmat incident, there are three things that can keep us safe: time, distance and shielding. As time goes by, as long as you keep yourself clean and don’t continue to make dumb mistakes, you’ll look better.

The more you can convince a department you’ve learned from your mistakes and that you take responsibility for your actions, the better you will stand a chance. You’ve got to be believable and sincere, which is tough for many.

I have seen many people with backgrounds worse than this get hired, for whatever reason, so there is obviously a chance. However, if I was the fire chief evaluating someone with a background such as this, I would be very concerned with a number of things: judgment, maturity, decision making, and problem solving, just to name a few.

I know we all make mistakes, and many times it’s good to make mistakes so you can learn from them and hopefully never do the same dumb mistake twice. However, mistakes made more than once and in the recent past don’t provide much confidence for a fire chief who is deciding whether you will be worthy of a career at their fire department.

At the end of the day, if you want to become firefighter, it is critical to keep yourself injury free and out of trouble. Don’t give a potential employer any reason to not hire you, and instead select one of the hundreds if not thousands of other well qualified candidates to get the job you had your heart and soul set to obtain.

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.