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Fire Service Officer Testing: What Process Are You Using?

By Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

As I have mentioned in previous blog articles, the fire service is seeing a significant deficit in applicants applying for firefighter positions. There is also a large turnover of personnel, often in the officer ranks.

As a result, firefighting organizations have an opportunity to place their personnel in more senior officer positions as the current ones retire. While many areas of the country are bound legally to promote by seniority or some other civil service rules, many organizations can choose to design testing processes that are completely different from the processes used in the past.

Determining the Ideal Qualities of Fire Department Officers

One of the biggest challenges in determining the next group of fire service leaders is the qualities that a first responder organization desires in its officers. The leadership qualities needed by officers can be debated from many angles.

First, company officers must serve as the front-line leaders of the organization. They set the cultural tone for the majority of the organization and carry out its vision and mission.

However, the actions of even the best leader in the station are null and void if that leader is unable to properly manage an organization’s personnel on 911 calls. This ability to provide management in intense, fast-moving situations is what separates good emergency service managers from many professions. That type of leader must have the ability not only to perform in the field, but also lead the crew at the same time.

Second, consideration should be given to whether that officer will be capable of advancing to more senior positions later. Most departments do not hire their chief officers from outside the organization, so any promotion considerations must account for the ability of that person to perform at a level above company officer in a few years.

Failure to abide by this consideration can limit choices for fire chiefs, causing the first department to hire externally and take a chance on a candidate with no history in the organization. That external hiring could potentially stifle morale, because it could eliminate internal promotions later.

Third, it is necessary to create the standards for the qualifications and education of that officer for the movement to fire chief. For instance, what qualifications does the officer candidate currently possess? What are the qualifications needed by a fire chief? For example, if a fire service organization requires a bachelor’s degree for a chief officer and the potential officer has no degree, how likely is that person to be promoted to fire chief in the next two years?

Designing Testing Processes

Since the beginning of promotions in the public sector, there has been a need for a validated and measurable testing process. This need increases when there is a unionized organization that ensures fairness for employees.

Previously, fire service promotions often involved a written exam that could be graded. They used the rote memorization of facts and allowed for very little to no personal influence by the fire department administration.

As fire departments began to realize the memorization of fact sdid not have a good correlation to the performance of officers, they began to incorporate the use of exercises conducted at assessment centers. These exercises were able to more accurately reflect officer duties and enabled rubrics to be developed.

Some of those developers may not have been qualified to design assessments based on their qualification of only being fire chiefs. Often, however, the desired qualities of officers could be agreed upon. Over time, many of these assessment centers were challenged, and better validation criteria was incorporated into the testing process.

A more proactive approach can be seen in some fire service departments, where they use the concept that past performance is the best indicator of future success. These testing processes utilize metrics of classes, accomplishments and review criteria, sometimes incorporating these elements into the acting officer program.

The Ideal Testing Process for Fire Service Officers

I suggest that the ideal testing process for company officers would incorporate the person’s qualifications, including training, education (such as an associate degree) and involvement in the organization. With these criteria, a potential officer candidate would then become eligible to participate in an acting officer program that would involve a list of objectives that must be met to complete the program.

Once that person passed the acting officer exam, that candidate would then be permitted to test for the officer position, using an assessment center and interview to advance to the next rank. This testing process would save the need to use the traditional written test that often only validates rote memorization and would allow the assessment center to more accurately measure a candidate’s performance. The interview could be utilized to gain additional insights from the potential officer regarding any thoughts related to management and leadership.

In the near future, many fire departments will experience more losses from their leadership ranks. How these departments will fill that void will be critical to the success – or failure – of those organizations.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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