What does your agency expect of a member in this position?

To properly prepare, you need to understand the position that you are testing for. (Wayne Barrall photo)

By Lisa Baker

To be successful at anything, you need to understand what you are being asked to perform, and an assessment center is no different. In many organizations, an assessment center is used as a means to promote members to company officers and above. Assessment centers have been found to be a fair method to test aspiring officers because all applicants are going through the same process. All applicants are being asked to perform the same exercises and are being graded by the same assessors (the individuals who are scoring the applicants). Assessors are trained members from the fire service who serve in the rank being tested or in a rank higher than the rank being tested.

Many fire service members have probably heard someone in their own organization or a neighboring agency state that they are going to an assessment center. What actually does that mean?

An assessment center is not a location; it is a process where aspiring fire service members are tested in a variety of exercises. It is a test. It tests your ability to perform the duties of the position for which you are testing. A typical assessment center will have a variety of job-related exercises that the applicant must do. Typically, you will find some sort of emergency scenario, a personnel problem/subordinate counseling, a written exercise, and an in-basket. So, how do you prepare to score high and ensure that you will be at the top of the eligibility list? Like any test, you need to prepare and study. Studying the right way and knowing how to score high on the assessment center will give you that edge up.

There are many articles, books, and classes throughout the United States on assessment centers. The classes teach you how to prepare to be successful in the assessment center process, But, like anything in life, you as the applicant need to be able to take the information and apply it to the situations at hand.

To properly prepare, you need to understand the position that you are testing for. What does your agency expect of a member in this position? Talk to those in the rank to determine this. Shadow your current officer and/or chief to see what the daily tasks of the position are, read your agency’s policies and procedures, rules and regulations, and understand how they apply to the position. Know the current issues in your own agency: What are the hot topics? Know what is occurring on the national stage with the fire service, again what are the hot topics? How do they apply to your agency?

When preparing, your mindset should not just be on passing the assessment center and receiving a high score. To be the most prepared for the position that you are testing for starts long before the announcement for a promotional opportunity is posted. You stay abreast of current issues in your agency, you are involved in your agency’s activities, you volunteer for projects, and you take classes and seminars throughout the United States if possible. This allows you not only to continue to grow but to build relationships with other fire service members throughout the United States as you network with members from similar size agencies and perhaps larger agencies.

Once the job announcement is posted, in many agencies there is a reading list that will have your own agency’s policies and procedures, rules and regulations, and other internal material. There may also be external materials that could range from books to videos. Knowing what to expect early will help you to prepare. Keeping up to date on your own agency’s policies and procedures, rules and regulations, and other internal information will have you one step ahead. You will not need to study this material in detail, as you have kept abreast of it throughout your career. Start preparing prior to the job announcement. Look at the previous year’s job announcements. Are there books that appear on both lists? If so, there is a good chance that they will be on the test that you will be taking. Get these books and prepare early. Then, when the job announcement comes out, your main focus can be on the new material. The time to prepare is not when the job announcement is posted.

Get a mentor. This does not necessarily have to be someone within you own agency. Talk to others in your agency who have taken assessment centers in the past. Talk to members of other agencies who have taken assessment centers to obtain as much information as you can from these members: What types of exercises were on their assessment center?

An assessment center is basically putting the candidate (the member taking the test) through the day of a rank that they are testing for. The emergency scenario, a written memo, an in-basket, and a subordinate problem are all possible scenarios that you will be tested on. But, if you are prepared, understand the position, and have watched a myriad of promoted members, you will truly understand the position that you are testing for as well as what is a respected officer.

So, the time to prepare for a promotion is not once the job announcement is published but long before. Become a student of the position. This will make you not only a top candidate but a well-rounded and prepared candidate.

Lisa Baker has been a member of the fire service for 28 years and has served as an assessor for numerous assessment center processes across the United States from the rank of firefighter to battalion chief. This has allowed her to gain the knowledge of what an assessment center entails and how to score high. She has also been involved in the test development process. She has an AA, a BA, and a master’s degree and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. She is a battalion chief in the Oakland (CA) Fire Department.


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