This article is part two of a four-article series around the process of becoming a firefighter. From the application process and testing requirements to getting the right certifications and understanding the job market outlook, we hear from a 25-year veteran about what to expect.
Part one of this series: Becoming A Firefighter: The Application Process
Author: Dennis K. Howard
Once your application package for becoming a firefighter is submitted, it is time to exercise your patience. The process may seem slow, but things are happening behind the scenes, and soon you will begin to receive information from the human resource department of the jurisdiction to which you applied to join the fire service.
There are a few things you can do now to begin preparing for the examination process.
What to do while you wait for your application results
- Mental Preparation – The mental part of this process is as much about having the right attitude as it is the knowledge involved in the testing. Self-confidence is, of course, a plus. You don’t want to come into the process with an arrogant attitude, but a sense of calm self-confidence is appropriate. Understanding what you are facing can go a long way toward alleviating your fears and apprehension.
- Physical Preparation – The physical part of the examination process can be challenging for some people. Now is an excellent time to pick up the pace a bit. Get out and get some physical exercise under your belt. Walking will never hurt, and if you are into more intense physical fitness, that certainly won’t hurt your chances.
- Personal Preparation – This is the time that you want to be as organized as possible. There will be deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, and you must meet the deadlines, appointments, and dates without fail. Getting yourself organized so that you can keep track is as important as being physically and mentally ready for the next few weeks.
Each of these is equally important in preparing for the examination process. Having yourself in the right place mentally, the best physical shape possible, and tuned into the process will give you an edge toward your goal of becoming a career professional firefighter.
What type of testing you will face
In the upcoming weeks, you can expect to be engaged in several different types of testing and evaluation as you go forward through the process of making the cut and being selected for the next academy class at the fire department training facility.
Understanding the types of tests and how the tests are used by the department to evaluate candidates can give you an advantage during the testing phase.
Testing of fire department candidates typically falls into several categories:
- Written Testing
- Physical Agility and Strength Testing
- Oral Interview Panels
- Medical Testing
- Psychological Testing
Not every department uses all these types of tests. The package you received when you got your application should give you some idea of what kinds of tests you will engage in during the process. Remember, each of these tests can make or break your opportunity to make the cut as a probationary firefighter.
What to Know About The Written Testing Component
Don’t be worried that you need to study firefighting topics to take the fire department written exams. The purpose of the written exam given by most career departments is not about firefighting at all. The tests focus more on general knowledge and reasoning skills. The questions will usually focus on the following topics.
- Reading Comprehension
- Mathematical Reasoning
- Observational Skills
- Spatial Reasoning
- Mechanical Reasoning
Some tests may include questions designed to judge your personality type. These tests, by and large, are multiple-choice and are designed to be scored mechanically. You can expect a fill in the dot type of answer sheet.
Almost all larger departments now use standardized tests produced by a handful of companies that specialize in writing, scoring, and interpreting tests. The companies design the tests to be non-specific so that they offer a fair and balanced equal opportunity to all the applicants.
Preparing for the Written Test
How you prepare for the test depends a lot on your background and abilities. The closer you are to your last educational experience, be it high school or college, the better off you may be in terms of readiness for a written test.
Some departments will provide a set of sample questions that you can use to familiarize yourself with the types and formats of the questions that you will see on the actual test. If the department uses standardized tests, and you can find out which company produces the tests, there are study guides that can help you prepare.
If you know you are weak in one area, such as mathematical reasoning, spending extra time preparing for those kinds of questions should certainly be helpful. The upside is that anyone with a reasonably good education can answer the questions.
The Psychological or Behavioral Questions
Some portion of the written exam may include questions that the department can use to judge certain characteristics of your personality. Fire departments look for certain traits in candidates for a position in the department, such as:
- The ability to prioritize
- Critical decision-making skills
- The ability to cope with stress
- Dealing with emotional stress
These are only a few traits fire departments may look for using a psychological or personality type test. These types of tests are almost impossible to prepare for with any certainty. Our best advice is to answer the questions honestly.
What to Know About The Physical Testing Component
The job of a firefighter is demanding both mentally and physically. Fire departments use written testing to help determine your mental fitness.
Physical tests used by fire departments are carefully designed to test your physical ability to perform specific tasks that are routinely performed by firefighters. Most metropolitan fire departments use a variation of either the CPAT or BIDDLE physical agility testing.
CPAT stands for the Candidate Physical Ability Test and is considered by many to be the standard test used to measure an individual’s capability to perform the tasks that routinely fall to firefighters. The CPAT test requires the candidate to perform evolutions, or tasks, in eight categories:
- Stair Climbing
- Hose Dragging
- Equipment Carrying
- Ladder Raises and Extensions
- Forcible Entry Evolutions
- Ceiling Search and Pull
During these tests, you will wear a helmet, gloves, and a 50lb weight vest that simulates the loads that a firefighter carries when fully protected by the personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus. Some departments may require you to wear the face mask as well.
A proctor will time you for each portion of the test. The times are combined to create a cumulative score at the end of the test. If you fail any of the eight tasks, you fail the entire test and eliminate yourself from the selection process.
The BIDDLE physical ability test is a variant of the CPAT and tests many of the same physical abilities. The BIDDLE test uses ten evolutions or tasks to test a candidate’s physical fitness and abilities:
- Charged hose deployment
- Dry hose deployment
- Victim removal
- Ladder raise and extension
- Confined space crawl
- Ladder removal and carry
- Stair climbing with a load
- Roof Ventilation
- Hose hoist
As with the CPAT, a proctor will accompany you during the test to score your progress and direct you through the evolutions.
Preparing for the Physical Tests
If you are in reasonably good shape, you should have no problem passing the physical abilities tests given by most departments. However, the quicker you perform each task, the higher you rank among the other candidates. The more fit you are, the better you should score.
Many fire departments provide candidates the opportunity to practice using the same equipment used during the actual tests. I highly encourage you to attend every session available to get an understanding of each part of the physical abilities test. You can then begin to prepare yourself where your fitness or abilities may be weak.
If you attend these practice sessions, talk to the firefighters who are there to monitor the sessions. They know and understand how these evolutions and tasks are supposed to work. There are tricks to the trade, so to speak, that can help ensure success and, most times, these firefighters will be glad to help you along. They were once in your shoes and understand the anxieties and the desire you feel as you approach your testing date.
What to Know About The Oral Interviews Component
More and more fire departments are including oral interviews as part of the candidate selection process. These interviews take several forms that include:
- Interview Panels
- One on One Interviews
- Situational Oral Tests
Being scheduled for an oral interview panel is a good sign that you are well on your way to becoming a probationary firefighter. Most departments don’t do oral interview boards with every applicant. These types of interviews are usually performed only for the top-performing candidates and are the last step in the selection process.
About Interview Panels
The most popular form of the oral interview is the interview panel. You will find yourself facing a panel of 3 to 7 fire department officers and perhaps even some senior firefighters. Most fire departments give their interview panels a set of prepared questions to ask each candidate. Your responses to the questions are recorded and noted.
There is no possible way to know what questions the interview board will ask during an oral interview. There are some general categories of questions typically asked.
- Personal questions about yourself, your family, your history, and your background.
- “What” questions judging your skills, knowledge, and, to some degree, your ability to prioritize and to analyze problems.
- “Why” questions judging your compatibility with the life of a firefighter by assessing your attitude, feelings, and understanding of the fire service, its traditions, and its requirements.
- Questions that seem to put you on the spot and require an answer that may seem to be detrimental to your chances of becoming a firefighter.
I want to talk a bit about that last category of questions. More than likely, the interview panel already knows the answer to the question. These questions may take the form of “Are you interviewing or applying with any other fire departments?” or “Have you ever been arrested for” and insert an offense.
If you are this far along in the process, more than likely, the fire department has done a comprehensive background check and knows the answers to these questions. The intent is to judge your honesty when faced with what may seem like detrimental information.
The best advice I can give is to answer honestly. If you are this far into the process, there is a good chance that the information is not considering the information as one that would eliminate you from the process. However, the way you answer could be a strike that sends you home.
Once you have completed the written testing, the physical ability testing, and, maybe, the oral interviews, it is time to go back to waiting. The selection process may take some time but, eventually, the fire department will select the pool of candidates that will make up the next rookie firefighter class at the academy.
Eventually, you will receive a letter from the fire department, giving you the official news, one way or the other. With a little preparation, the proper attitude, and a little bit of luck, the letter will be one that welcomes you to the brotherhood of firefighters and one of the greatest and most rewarding careers you could hope to find.
We continue the conversation about becoming a firefighter in part three of this blog series: Application Acceptance & Advanced Career Opportunities
Dennis K. Howard is a retired firefighter. He worked for 25 years with the Lubbock Fire and Rescue Department in Lubbock, Texas. During his career, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. At his retirement, he was the ranking Lieutenant at his fire station and oversaw an engine company and the two other shifts serving at the station. His training included stints as a member of the hazardous materials response team and serving as the President of the professional firefighter’s association.
Dennis also has a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education and a Master of Business Administration. His off-duty activities included starting and operating several businesses, including a software development firm, a consulting firm, and, after his retirement, a retail sporting goods store. Part of his retirement involves teaching at the university level in the undergraduate business management program of a local, regional university. Dennis now spends most of his time freelance writing, working in his garden and greenhouse, and entertaining his grandchildren.