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On Getting Hired by R.D. Mandery

A fire engine screams by, you can`t ignore the air horn blaring, the coaster siren wound up and of course, you can't help but notice that the machine is shined to the max. You glance up over the horizon and see the smoke rising. You hear several other sirens that seem to be converging on the scene from other areas of the city. You think to yourself man!, I`d really like to be on that fire engine, "geez, it seems like it would be a great job."

In most cases the fire service is an outstanding career and then there are those special times that you may wish you had never seen, nor heard of the fire department, (and these rare situations will resolve themselves and pass). Please, don`t misinterpret my intention here. I do not want to project negativity, but you must be properly informed and understand right up front what the fire service is all about.

The fire service is about responding to tragedy, danger, excitement and the severely ill and injured public. Prepare yourself with this awareness before you are successful gaining an appointment to the fire department. There is also much self satisfaction, personal pride and team spirit, but again, you will be exposed to some pretty terrible scenarios, as a professional fire fighter. You can get yourself ready by receiving the proper training, gaining experience and the understanding and knowledge that you didn't cause the problems that the public has called you to mitigate and your only purpose is to help. You also must realize early on, that there are those situations that there will be absolutely nothing you can humanly do to make things right, other than pick up after the event has stabilized.

If you have had even the slightest interested in the fire service, you probably made it a point to see the movie Back Draft. This movie, is just that , a movie. It is a rather glamorous (humorous) and exceedingly inaccurate depiction of life in the fire service. I'll forgo any further commentary regarding the plot and the rest of the movie. I hope that no one out there really thinks that the fire service in any form or fashion directly resembles the movie.

What's this all about? Testing, that is...

Usually there are several segments to the testing process, for most fire departments.

The processes are different for each jurisdiction (do your research) and each of the separate segments of the entrance examination process may be in different order, than I have listed them in this article.

First you must locate the job notice, or notification of testing process. You will find these in the state or city employment centers, newspapers, the Internet, or they may be sent to you along with your official application. When you get a copy of the position qualifications, read that document over very carefully and make the initial determination if you qualify.

The actual testing parts of the process usually includes a written test (entrance exam), oral board (interview), physical agility test (to see how fit you are), psychological profile (to see if you are mentally suited for the rigors of the job), extensive medical exam, maybe a polygraph, and an extensive background investigation and the final interview, usually with the Chief, or his/her designee. WOW! Yep! that's right partner, they put you through the proverbial ringer. It is generally a long, tough and grueling process. Many give up, others don't make it through. You must keep going, do not ever get discouraged.

General Requirements

Want to be a fire fighter? Then stay out of trouble. Fire fighting is a Public Safety position of trust. Any Public Safety position will require you to be a good and reliable citizen. You must be trustworthy, honest and willing to demonstrate loyalty and reliability. If you have not been able to get on board for the big win in the past, when it comes to these traits then, start now. It is never too late.This good citizen stuff includes a clean driving record, usually no more than one speeding ticket in three years. It also includes good credit record in many cases. Look carefully at the job notice and find out if you actually qualify.

Age may be a problem for you. If you are 18 and the fire departments in your region only accept 21 year old applicants, then get busy and go back to school. You should attempt to get a fire service degree or public administration degree or a general education degree. Stay in school, you can take all the tests you need to while continuing your education. If you are going to have some waiting time before you are eligible to test, make it productive time.

If you are currently in the testing mode, it is a good idea to have a supply of stock cover letters made up, kept in a three ring binder, along with all your original certificates and diplomas, etc. You can type labels to apply to the cover letter for each new address (then go to a copy center), unless you can use a computer. Ideally, keep this information on a computer disk. Computerization of your resume materials makes it easy to store, access and change. Putting your items or documents on a computer disk also makes updates to your resume and cover letter very quick and easy. You can scan (or have it done for you), all of your documents and keep them on computer disk, as well.If you currently cannot afford your own computer, you can use computers at copy centers and/or public libraries, as well as at the school (you should be in), to build your data base of resume information. As soon as you are able, get your own computer.There are many great deals out there on used or reconditioned machines. Get a MacIntosh with at least a PowerPC chip,( it will say right on the front of the case), or at a minimum, a 486 DX 66 IBM type machine. These usually can be purchased complete for about $500 or less.

Be organized and be ready for every test that comes along! You should also have in your possession (kept in your testing/reference packet) several copies of the following: an up-to-date abstract of your driving record, birth certificate, social security card, current drivers license, high school diploma and any other diplomas or professional certificates that are noted on the qualifications part of the job notice.


There are a number of smaller fire departments, that specifically look for experienced fire fighters.The experience they want includes fire service experience, and even EMT level training. On an even more restrictive note, there are those small fire departments out there that even require that you to first, become a volunteer fire fighter in their department, before you will be considered for appointment to the career ranks.

Most large fire departments only require a basic high school education, at this time. Again, be sure that you read the job qualifications sheet carefully. I am certain that the qualifications for entrance will, in the future, include at least a two year college degree for candidates to be eligible to test. I just cannot overemphasize the need for you to get as much education beyond high school as you can before you test.

I have known hundreds of new recruits in my 30 years in the fire service, and with a very few exceptions each and every one would agree with me that they wish they had finished their degrees before accepting appointments to the fire departments they are now working for.

In most large fire departments (departments serving populations over 150,000 people) previous fire fighting experience usually is not required to gain a probationary appointment. Most large fire departments have their own recruit training academy or recruit school or probationary training as the, basic training part of your new experience is called. Recruit school is usually around two to three months long, possibly even longer. You are generally on probation for a full year, which is also a training period. This year probation usually culminates with a rather involved final exam like test that you must pass to gain regular status in the department.

Fire departments haven't quite made it into the realm of pure professional certificated occupations, such as nursing or school teaching etc. (unfortunately) Most large fire departments are quite insular.There are almost no (none that I am currently aware of) places that you can gain appointment by interview and resume, walk in to your assigned station , hand your journeymans card to the Captain, put your gear on the ladder, engine or rescue and sit down for a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.

There are a certain number of departments of varying size, that have some form of experienced employment. This is usually called a lateral transfer. The problem being is that in most cases you will essentially start over and have no seniority. You will still have to go all the way back through probationary period. You may come from a fire department serving half a million people to one that serves barely 75,000 population, and still have essentially no respect, if you will. Police departments seem a little more advanced than some of the fire departments regarding this unique situation. Having to give a reason for this odd behavior, one would have to understand the great differences in operations from fire department to fire department. If and when national standardization becomes a reality, true lateral transfers may become more common.

If you do decide,for one reason or another, to obtain some fire service experience, you will have to consider a volunteer fire department. Volunteer fire services are found in suburban and rural areas all over the country. You need to get around your community and look carefully. I have talked to dozens of persons interested in the fire service. In many cases these interested parties simply assumed that the entire areas fire service was paid, when in fact some or all of the suburban areas, surrounding the large urban center were volunteer or part-paid/volunteer type departments.

You may also consider applying to one of several fire service training schools around the country.Several of these Community College programs will actually allow you to participate in real, daily fire and ems activities (after some initial training of course), while you attend a Community College level training program. Two programs of which I am very familiar with are the South Puget Sound Community College, Fire Protection Technology Program in Olympia, WA, and the Chemeketa Community College Program, Fire Science in Salem, OR. I'm certain that you may find similar programs in your own region, if you look hard.

Previous fire service experience will not necessarily provide you an advantage on the entrance exam, for basic fire fighter positions in most fire departments. Unless required by the jurisdiction you are testing for, previous fire fighting experience may help you get through the basic training or recruit academy school with a little less pain. Being familiar with the tools, appliances, equipment and the general evolutions used in the fire service, is a large part of the battle. Although there will be some strong differences in different fire services, there are also many similarities.

You must bring one very important concept (if you have previous fire service experience) with you to any large departments recruit school (if and when you finally get there).That is, there are many varied and different ways to accomplish the same evolution. Display your enthusiasm by doing well in the class and on the drill ground; be quiet, observe and learn their way. Unless encouraged to do so, this is not the time for you (a new recruit), to attempt to effect change in the organization!


It causes me quite a bit of heartburn, to think about the number of outstanding, intelligent, articulate, capable and mentally superior fire service candidates that were rejected during the physical agility segment of the testing processes (that I have participated in as a judge), because they refused to get in shape before the test. If you cannot easily accomplish the following two events, (and this isn't all there is to a physical agility test) then get busy and moderately, under professional supervision work your way into good physical condition.

A word of caution, if you have been in-active for a time, no matter how young you are, then don't attempt the test , no matter how simple it appears. It is also a must, that you see your private physician for a complete physical, before attempting any new rigorous activity.

First, stand with your back, heels and head flat against a wall. You cannot move or bend forward. Have a friend hand you a barbell with 85 pounds on it. Now do five curls. After you have started your running program and you are in reasonable physical condition, go to a school track, find how many laps equal a mile and a half. Have your buddy time you, with a stop watch. You must be able to run a mile and a half within 12 minutes. More advice, the road to success in the fire service is paved in iron and sweat. Plan on keeping up the kind of fitness training program you would need for high school football for the rest of your career (30 or so years).

Entrance Exam, Written

How many different written tests are out there? Hundreds. How can I prepare for these? There several publications available that will give you examples of the types of questions you will find on many of the written exams. You might try to find these �fire service entrance exam questions� in your local public library or nearby college library. If you have not been in school for a while, get yourself a study guide for the GED exam. Study it, take the practice exams over and over, especially the basic math, vocabulary and reading comprehension. Read, read and read some more. If you aren't a reader, then you absolutely must become one. I don't care how dumb or goofy you think this advice is, you must do it! Reading will put you way ahead of the competition, and the competition is truly fierce. The more you read the better reader you will become. The better you get at reading, the greater your comprehension/ retention will become and the better you will do on the fire fighters entrance written exam. The so called written exam is more reading than writing.

One of the newest types of entrance exams is a type that requires you purchase a study manual. This study manual is about the fire service, well, kind of about the fire service. There is much information in the book that is technically incorrect, as far as modern fire tactics and procedures are concerned, but that is not the point. The point is, that you have to memorize that particular written material, cover to cover. You just about have to get a 100% score, on this specific test to make it into the rest of the testing process. There are not many candidates out there, who take the necessary time to really read and study the book. Believe me the civil service test proctors are counting on this, as their job is to pare down the sheer numbers of candidates. Others are confused by the poor information found, that conflicts with modern fire fighting procedures. If you happen to run across this type of �study book� testing, learn it well, even if you think the material is outdated or incorrect. The test is on the study manual, not what is currently �fire service correct�.

All the old �general stuff�, the old �standbys�, still apply too. The day before the test, eat a good, non-greasy diet, get enough to eat but don't pig out. Make certain that you've taken care of anything that will distract your concentration, long before the test; now (test day) isn't the time to be carrying a bunch of problems around, in your head. Get an adequate amount of sleep. If you usually get by fine, with six hours of sleep, then certainly get six hours. If you need 10 hours of sleep to feel your best, then make sure you can get ten hours. Don't do a hard physical work out the day before the test, but rather a light work out or a brisk walk, which will actually help you sleep better than no exercise at all.

Make the trip to the testing site at least once before the actual test day. Make certain you know how to get to the testing site and where the parking is, (and if it costs to park). Time your trip and allow yourself plenty of time to arrive at the testing site. NEVER, EVER be late for any testing procedure. Call the personnel department clerk administering the test. Ask the responsible person if you will need any pencils, paper or calculators before the test date, if this information is not on the job announcement. On the test day, get to the site at least 20 minutes before the test and RELAX! Bring your favorite tunes, listen to them for a time until you are wound down. Don't get too wound down, however. You need just a tiny amount of excitement, just the right amount to keep you competitive and alert.

Resume, cover letter...

There are numerous, outstanding resume publications out there. You can also find help on the Internet with this task. There are even more private enterprises that will (for a fee) prepare your cover letter and resume for you. It really isn't a bad idea to have your resume professionally done at least once. After all you are a good learner, then you will have a guide to go by! The fire department most probably won't even need a resume, for the initial testing. Be certain to find out before you submit your application if they want a cover letter and resume to be submitted with the official application form, or brought to the oral board.

NOTE: If the personnel clerk you speak to says anything to the effect, It is entirely up to the candidate to determine the status of their cover letter and/or resume, that is a red flag! They do not want to give any one applicant any advice or advantage, over another. If they are vague, then send that cover letter and resume with the application, just to be safe.

On your official application form make a couple of copies and practice filling the copies out before you complete the original. READ CAREFULLY! Follow directions. In certain cases the application is part of the testing process. If there is an area that states, Do Not Fill In Shaded Area, then don't fill it in, even if the questions seem like ones that you should be answering. Again, this is where reading and reading comprehension come into play as your ally.

Observations, things to look for...

Go visit each fire department that you are contemplating testing with. Find out, by contacting the fire department administration office, during regular business hours, if you can ride with one of the engine, ladder or aid/rescue companies. Even if department policy does not allow the ride along program, you should still make it a point visit several of the busiest stations and talk to some of the old hats, and to some of the probies or new recruits. Saturday or Sunday afternoons or minor holidays are good times to visit, as these times are usually not heavily productive times. Make every effort to determine if this is a fire department that you would really like to be a part of. Write down some of the positive reasons that you like about the place, and retain your notes, they will come in handy later, during your oral interview.

Learn what you can about the community and the fire department. Be prepared to give interesting, from the heart, and informed answers about why you would really like to work for this fire department, during your oral board interview. If you decide you would not like to work at this or any other department that is holding an entrance exam test, for any reason, TAKE THE TEST ANYWAY! You need the practice. Never get discouraged. Unless you spank a test and get 100%, you will need to take lots of tests. The people that never get discouraged are the ones that end up with the jobs, eventually. Most average fire fighters, today, are finally getting hired after taking from 20 to 40 tests! Avoid (only) testing for one (dream) department. I knew a young recruit candidate that wanted to work for a large east side town in my region. That city was the only fire department he would test for. That was 27 years ago and he's still testing. Yes, your math is correct he is 45 now.

Oral Board Testing

Find as many books on the oral board part of the exam that you can. The best sources for finding these are the many fire service trade publications (magazines) available. Dont forget the Internet as a source also, see National Directory of Emergency Services ( There are as many ideas about how to ace fthe oral board part of your examination process, as there are oral boards. The most basic concepts include never getting mad (you may be tested to the extreme on this one),always project a presence of confidence and alertness and be sure your body language makes you look like you want this job more than anything else in the world . ie)., no slouching, sit up straight, don't fiddle etc.

Bring a copy of your application and resume along with notes on the fire department and community with you to the oral board. Unless they specifically tell you not to refer to the notes, you can use them to help you answer questions. Always think carefully about your responses, to the oral board members questions. Do not be too quick to answer; then again, do not take too long to respond to the board members question, either. There will be those unique questions that have no right or wrong answer. Be prepared to defend your position, (your answer to a controversial question).

Again, this is where experience and practice (taking tests) will help you greatly. By taking as many tests as you can stand, you will eventually improve your testing skills. When you obtain copies of the video tapes or text books on fire service oral boards, make every effort to determine the concepts of each of the points covered in the materials. Tap into the affective learning centers of your brain. How you feel about the items covered in the texts will be of great assistance to you in developing your own, original responses to oral board questions.

Prepare your own answers, in your own words, using the concepts you have learned. Avoid the stock or canned answers found in the (helping guides) of oral board texts. If you get stuck and we all do from time to time, you can fall back on rote memorization, but try to avoid the stock answers as much as possible. If you persist in using canned or stock answers from videos or books,you might as well get the How To Pass The Oral Board manual out and read verbatim to the members of the board.

Believe me, if your answers aren't sincere and original, you will be spotted immediately. Get the concepts down, form a study group and go over your responses to the questions found in the study manuals.

If you are having trouble understanding these concepts, you can contact on the World Wide Web. There you will discover a great deal of outstanding information on oral boards through these very professional and informed folks.

What to wear...

You will want to wear a business suit to the oral board and Chief's interview. Dark color. You don't need to get a custom designed business suit from Hong Kong. Go to the mens department of any department store or mens clothing store, the personnel there will be of great assistance to your needs. Tell them what you are doing, what you need the suit for, and that you are on a budget. I think you will be pleased with the service you receive.

You want this job more than anything, so you have to dress accordingly. Remember, these are long time professionals on this oral board. For the most part they will probably be somewhat conservative, at least socially, if not politically. These people are looking for the most alert, brightest and articulate people available. Be yourself, be alert and act like you are interested in every little detail. Your demeanor should be reflective of one that is ready to go to work. Leave the slang terms home, forget the ain'ts and uhs. Do not use profanity. Always use correct English, but don't try to impress the board by using five dollar words for 25 cent thoughts. regular English is fine.

Good Luck. Good testing. Whether you are looking for a smaller type fire department or one of the biggest, I bid you the best of everything in your search. I certainly hope that this article will be of some help to you in locating and securing your ideal fire service position. At the very least you may now be armed with a little more information than before. The thought that many fire departments have as many different approaches to hiring, should always be in the front of your mind. Your job is to research each and every fire department that you wish to test for. Write to them and ask the questions, that you need answered.

Be specific and never get discouraged.

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