Making Rank…

I always enjoyed the promotional process. Don’t get me wrong. They were stressful. My palms sweated. I worried about how I’d do. My stomach got tied up in knots sometimes but I enjoyed going through them. I looked at them like a competition and, at least in my mind, placing high somehow demonstrated that you were the best in the department at your present position. For instance, if you were a firefighter testing for driver, finishing first meant you were the best firefighter overall. I know it’s silly now but the competition and drive to prove myself always motivated me.

I managed to finish second overall in my lieutenant process. A half a point separated me from the number one slot. I did finish first in our assessment center however and I felt a sense of pride in managing to score higher than Chuck Baird who may have been the best instructor to ever come through Cobb and a natural showman. I’ve always said that a great portion of an assessment center is simply “putting on your show”.

I never made Captain but I scored in the top of the Captain’s assessment centers too. Well, I did when I managed to show up on time and actually get to participate…inside joke.

There is an irony in seeking advancement I see often. I’ve been at stations or bumped into young jakes at training and I’ll ask them if they are testing for promotion. Not infrequently the reply I’d get was something to the effect that they didn’t feel they had enough experience yet. “I haven’t been to enough fires to ride the seat yet” is a typical response. These are conscientious, hard charging guys or I wouldn’t be asking if they were going to test.

Here’s the irony. The guys and gals that I don’t ask this question to, because I hope they aren’t testing, are often hitting the books pretty hard. The ones you don’t want driving or riding the seat don’t seem to have the same reservations about making rank. And that’s what I tell the young go-getters. You can make rank or you can work under lieutenant Soandso. Is that what you want?

Most processes will begin with a written examination. What can be said? Learn the material. Pretty simple. John Goebel, my lieutenant at Station #5 when I was a firefighter gave me some great advice. He told me that the questions were like bricks in a wall. The bricks come from the testing material. If you read and study all of the books, cover to cover, there isn’t a brick they can throw at you that you haven’t at least seen.

Credit: Tshiverd

“I’m just not a good test taker” you say? Find out why, and study in a way that will help you retain the material. There are a lot of different ways to study.

For me, I read every book on the lieutenant’s list cover to cover. When I came to something I thought might make a good test question I highlighted it. When I finished reading all of the books, I took the highlighted portions and wrote them in a five-subject notebook (You’ll need the paper). Then I took a note card and went question by question with the answer covered up by the card. If I answered it right, I marked through it. I knew that one. If I got it wrong or struggled, I put an asterisk by that question. Then I took all the asterisked questions and recorded them with the answers on a micro-cassette recorder and I listened to them over, and over, and over, and over.

Two points from the high score on the lieutenant’s written. That’s alright, I’ll get you at the assessment center Chuck!

That was 2000 so I’m sure technology offers a multitude of ways to improve this process but stick with me. Just because my predecessors may have studied by writing their questions on parchment by candlelight doesn’t mean their process was flawed. There was just a new and improved way to do it.

Testing for driver is going to include a pumping assessment as well. I’m pretty far removed from that but here is the advice I can offer for what it’s worth.

Know how to pump. Duh, but it’s true nonetheless. If you don’t know what your department pumps a pre-connect at or when to go from pressure to volume you have no business testing and you have no business driving.

Credit Andy Magee

If you’ve got the basics down though I’d advise you to learn from the folks who took the tests or went through the qualification process most recently. It’s great to have a 15 year lieutenant with the heart to try and help you and I applaud him or her. The reality though is that the guy who made driver two years ago is probably in a better position to help you.

As different people come through as training officers, they bring different perspectives. 15 years ago maybe the training staff was big on flowing big water through multiple lines. A few years later maybe they were more focused on some other aspect like, transitional tandem pumping or drafting. Maybe there has been an instance or two in the recent past where establishing permanent water, or getting foam was a problem so they write that into the process now. These are the hot button issues you better prepare for.

Now pump…. a lot! Pump every chance you get! Pump on the ramp of your station. Ask your company officer and driver to pump with you. Get in on the pump training at the station second in to yours. Pump with your buddy on tomorrow’s shift. Pump…. pump…PUMP!

And now it’s time for the assessment center!

First of all, show up looking sharp! Assessment centers are created to be as objective as they can be. The assessors have likely been told they aren’t grading based on appearances but people judge. On some level we all judge.

I was an assessor several times for a personnel board that represented around 20 different municipalities in their county. Their candidates were advised to wear comfortable clothes for the day because the assessment center would take several hours. We were instructed to disregard their attire.

Some of the candidates showed up in sweat shirts and ball caps. Others showed up in their duty uniforms. I hope we didn’t allow ourselves to be biased and I know we tried. Why take a chance? Show up as sharp as you can; hircut, shoes polished, shirt pressed, Class A’s if that’s not over dressing and, oh yeah…NEW underwear. Trust me, new underwear.  

My next basic advice is, as much as possible, don’t be intimidated by the assessors. I get it. You’ve been on the job 5 years and you’re being assessed for lieutenant by three people with “captain” or “battalion chief” in front of their name from some department bigger than yours. So what?

Trust me when I say this, that battalion chief from Little Rock or Chattanooga or Sacramento or Boston may be one super sharp squared away fire officer who is on top of their game in every way.

But there is also a very good chance they may simply be a marginal fire officer with a cousin who lives 20 minutes from your department who was looking for a free trip and some hang time for a few days. It happens. They may not be as squared away as you think.

When I was assigned to training I was asked to be a mock candidate for a driver’s assessment center our department had put together. One of my exercises was to give a 5 minute class on ropes and knots and I was supplied with a section of static kernmantle.

Ropes and knots were never my thing and they really caught me off guard. Now, I don’t advocate trying to baffle them with BS but I didn’t really have a choice or anything to lose as a mock candidate. So, with a mind full of made up “facts” about static kernmantle I entered the room and started rattling them off. “This is static kernmantle rope it has a tensile strength of 5000 pounds!” I also somewhat tied a knot for them. I forget which knot was assigned as part of the assessment center but I simply tied something up really fast, acting like I knew exactly what I was doing and waved it in front of the assessors like a magician.

Again, I don’t advocate flying by the seat of your pants but if they hit you with something you haven’t studied and you can sing and dance your way through it go for it.

It probably would have been different if the SME’s watched me in real life but they all said my ropes class was great so don’t be intimidated by the titles! Some of the assessors may not know better.

There are several exercises an assessment center may consist of. In my experience, not always but more often than not, there were three; a hot seat, a role play, and an in-basket.

For a hot seat exercise learning to think on your feet, as long as you apply good tactics, may be the most important skill you can have. Today’s hot seats have you thinking fast and making assignments in fairly quick succession. The best way to acquire this skill is to practice a lot of mock hot seat exercises.  

When I was assigned to a station that got banged out to a fire regularly the thought process just seemed to flow. If I hadn’t been to one in a while it took longer to get the wheels turning. The same applies to the thought process in a Hot Seat Exercise.

It’s important to understand your department’s normal operating procedures. The subject matter experts are going to school the assessors on these things and this is how they will grade you. With that said, if you have a pet tactic or something you’ve come to believe in don’t be afraid to use it. Just be able to defend it.

In my lieutenant’s assessment center, they gave us a basement fire. I assigned a search on the first floor before we put lines on the fire. In my follow-up questions one of the assessors seemed incredulous that I would do that. I explained that we take great risk to save lives and I believed that searching over the fire was worth the risk due to the potential of savable lives in the bedrooms. I scored well.

Credit Zackery Newton

Role Plays, more often than not, involve some sort of conflict that you’ll need to resolve. There is some sort of issue that you, as the supervisor, must rectify. There may be more than one issue and you need all the information the role players will give you.

Don’t buy into the emotion. This may take a practice. It’s hard to believe how much we can allow the pretend argument of two role players to amp us up. Practice will help you stay calm but you have to convince yourself that this is simply a role you and these others are playing. It’s not real!

I always told my guys that the role players will get a card with a few pieces of information that they can communicate to the candidates…if the candidate will let them. If the candidate is interrupting them or too geeked up to listen he/she won’t get these pieces of information pivotal to solving the problem(s).

If the role players are arguing openly, as they often will be, separate them appropriately. Then begin with a simple question for the first one; “So, what’s going on?”

Then, shut up and listen. When they appear to have finished, ask them another simple question; “Is there anything else?” Shut up and let them talk again. When they have given you all the information then you can dig deeper. “Do you believe you’re being…harassed…treated poorly…disrespected…whatever.”

Now you can formulate an plan based on having all the information. You should have all the information available to you.

Learning how to disarm people will take you a long way as well. Let’s say an irate citizen comes in to the station to make a complaint. The quickest way to disarm them is to empathize.

“What! A nozzle fell off the engine and cracked your windshield? I’d be upset too! Have a seat and let me get some more information.”

Now we’re on the same team and he can open up. See how that works?

In Basket exercises can be trying. I think you need a system for all of the potential exercises but especially with the In Basket. The best system I’ve found involves some method of prioritizing them so you can present an organized answer for the assessors.

The system I used involved looking at all of the emails and phone calls and messages you had and assigning them a 1, 2, or 3.

1’s are the top priority. These were safety issues. The brakes on the engine won’t hold. There’s a rattlesnake in the engine bay. Firefighter Smith’s mask is cracked.

Priority 1 also includes customer complaints and needs. Yesterday’s shift ran over a mailbox. Mrs. Jones is afraid the bridge on her property won’t support the engine if she has an emergency.

2’s are important but not crucial. Station 50 want to do some pump training.

3’s are things that you should do when you can make time for them. Firefighter Thomas called and wants to find out how many of your station’s people want to play softball at the department picnic.

After I got them prioritized 1, 2, or 3 I broke them down further; 1A, 1B, 1C, 2A, 2B, etc. Now write out how you would handle each one being as detailed as possible.

Many times, an exercise will end with a specific question, one question which I always told my folks to be ready for. If you’re ready, you may greatly increase your score. If you’re not you’ll miss a great opportunity.

The question is this; Is there anything you’d like to add? This is your chance to leap frog a bunch of other candidates if you know how. What you want to do here is give them, in an organized, clearly articulated and organized manner, as much applicable information as you can that the other candidates didn’t.

With the hot seat simply tell them that, even though the exercise began with your arrival on the scene, your size-up began when the tones dropped at your station. You were thinking about hydrants out of service. You pondered staffing on other responding equipment and who might have been out of service. You were thinking about construction in the area as well.

Tell them too all the things you would do once the fire is out. Tell them you would ask for another engine to help roll hose if it’s 96 degrees out that day. Tell them when and why you might call for a CISM. Tell them how you would take care of displaced occupants. Tell them how you would determine the cause and point of origin.

The same applies to the In Basket. Tell them that you’ve demonstrated competence to them with the 12 -15 issues they gave you but you want them to understand that you realize there is a lot more to running a firehouse than those things. You’ll need to tie in with the shift going off duty. There are weekly duties that have to be addressed. Some sort of training must be accomplished today. The crew needs to get a workout in. If it’s going to snow you need to have the chains checked out.

Credit Paul Bryan

Preparing for a promotional process takes time and dedication. My little article here is just scratching the surface but I hope it helps in some way. And if you don’t get promoted this year I always looked at it like all the work I’d put in just made me a better firefighter.

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