Only the Best: How to hire the right officer for the job
By Stephen M. Coleman Jr.

As a fire chief, promoting a firefighter to company officer may be one of the single most important decisions you make. Department personnel are the backbone of our organization, so if we don’t promote high-quality people to lead them, we’re setting up our departments for decreased employee morale, legal concerns and/or problems with public perception and support.

So we must ask ourselves, are we doing everything possible to ensure that we promote great employees? In some cases, the answer is no.

Civil Service & the Fire Service
Before you consider hiring anyone, you must be aware of how your department works. If your department works under civil service law or a collective bargaining agreement that outlines promotional practices, you must be thoroughly familiar with the hiring and promotional processes required. One misstep or violation may bring legal trouble to your organization.

When working under civil service rules or with contract language, you may be a little more restricted in how you can conduct the hiring process, although the administration is usually able to select their candidate choice under its management rights. For instance, in Massachusetts, a chief may select one of the top three candidates from a civil service promotional exam. The chief doesn’t have to promote the person who scored highest on the test, but he does need a valid reason to bypass them.

Whether or not this is the case in your department, the administration should work closely with the union to establish minimum standards for promotional candidates. Standards may include the following qualifications:
• A minimum number of years in the fire service before being eligible to take a promotional exam;
• Minimum educational levels;
• Points for fire officer training and certification; and
• Consideration of an employee’s evaluation forms.

Such standards will ensure that firefighters taking the examinations and the people being promoted are of the highest caliber. Note: If you’re not familiar with civil service rules, consult with your labor council prior to the start of a promotional process.

If your department doesn’t work under civil service or a collective bargaining agreement, then the administration is free to set the promotional standards themselves.

The 6 Steps
Use the following six steps as a guide to establishing high-quality, consistent hiring practices as they relate to promotions. You may need to adjust some of these steps to fit the needs of your department, but for the most part, everything that’s discussed in this article is obtainable, even for the smallest departments.

1. Decide on minimum qualifications.
Deciding up front which qualifications you’re looking for in a promotional candidate will immediately reduce the applicant pool, thereby reducing the number of applications you have to sift through.

Not sure which qualifications to require? Consider a college degree as a minimum requirement. A candidate with a college degree proves that at the very least, they can finish something they start.

The college environment also allows candidates to interact with people from all walks of life, with varying educational backgrounds, political views and work experience. As a result, many people develop a degree of empathy, a trait that’s often absent in the fire service but can prove crucial to managing people.

Note: In the February 2008 issue of FireRescue, Chief Jim Harmes pointed out in his article, “A Higher Calling,” p. 80, that many police departments in his area require applicants to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. If law-enforcement agencies require an advanced degree for entry-level positions, shouldn’t the fire service require an advanced degree for its supervisors?

Another minimum qualification to consider: training and certification as a Fire Officer I, which are usually offered through your state or regional fire academies. Training should meet the requirements of NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications.

2. Hold a written examination.
A written examination will show which promotional candidates are up to date on all of the latest procedures and trends in the fire service today. It will also help determine a candidate’s ability to understand information and material and their ability to recall that information at a future date, a skill company officers use on a daily basis.

If a candidate doesn’t pass the promotional exam, it doesn’t mean they can’t do the physical aspects of the job or that they’re not a good firefighter, but it might mean that they won’t be able to keep up with the academic challenges that they’ll face throughout their career as a company officer.

If you choose to give a promotional exam, don’t write the exam yourself. Many companies specialize in written entrance and promotional examinations and can provide you with all the materials necessary to hold an examination. (Note: There’s a fee associated with testing services, but the cost is well worth the service.)

You can choose exams that are already written based on a predetermined reading list, or you can select the books you want the candidates to study from, and the testing company will create the exam from those books.

For a small fee, companies will often include questions on an exam based on your department’s standard operating procedures and guidelines. A simple Internet search of those companies will direct you to their Web sites for more information on scheduling examinations.

One advantage of holding a written examination: It may take some of the politics out of the promotional process.

3. Allow a group of your current fire officers to conduct the first round of interviews.
At this point, get other company officers in your department involved in the process. Assemble a group of five or six officers who will be responsible for conducting peer interviews. Use an even mix of both lieutenants and captains who will attempt to get a feel for the candidates and rank them.

Interview questions should be work-related and the same for all candidates. Ask questions that will give the peer group a sense of how the candidate feels about being a company officer, and how they would handle themselves in situational and organizational conflicts. Those who rank the highest move on to the next step. Tip: Prior to working in a peer interview group you may want to conduct some additional research on ranking interviews and how a scoring process is established.

The peer interview allows the other company officers to get a sense of whether the candidate will be a good fit in the department’s supervisory structure. It also allows the candidate to let their guard down a bit since there won’t be a chief officer in the room.

4. Conduct thorough background investigations on serious candidates.
This may be the most important step in the entire process and also the most risky. Recent changes to existing privacy regulations have made it more difficult for organizations to obtain certain types of information on their employees, but it’s not impossible. Important: If you’re conducting background investigations on current or future employees, consult your city’s labor counsel to ensure that your process is consistent with both state and federal laws regarding employee privacy rights.

Departments that don’t conduct thorough background investigations either during the initial hiring process or during the promotional process have, from time to time, wound up with egg on their face. Employees have been hired or promoted and later dismissed or demoted over some impropriety that occurred prior to employment that would’ve been discovered in a background check.

Background investigations will vary depending on whether the person is an existing employee or prospective employee. For instance, for a current employee, it may not be necessary to contact previous employers, obtain character references or perform credit checks because you already know how that employee functions in the workplace. Tip: To save time and energy, wait until there are serious contenders for the position before you start background investigations.

For years, a criminal records check was the extent of any background investigation. Today, we want to learn a little more about our promotional candidates, such as what kind of people they are, what life they lead outside the station, etc. (Note: Keep in mind that many outside activities may be private.)

To answer these questions, confirm that certifications and other educational credentials listed on a candidate’s resume actually exist. For your protection, when a candidate submits a resume for promotions, have them sign a statement drafted by your city’s legal department acknowledging that all the information on the resume is true. When signed under the penalties of perjury, this allows a candidate to be passed over for promotion or dismissed from the organization if the inconsistencies are flagrant.

Another investigation tool that’s becoming more and more popular: sites like MySpace and Facebook, as well as search engines like Yahoo or Google. Just type in a person’s name and you may be surprised at what you find. But exercise caution when using these sites. Don’t dig for information that’s irrelevant to the promotional process. The intent is not to ruin someone’s family life or career; it’s to get a sense of who the candidate really is. Your job as a chief officer is to protect the employees and the image of your organization. Someone who’s willing to post inappropriate material for all to see probably won’t be the best ambassador for your department.

Lastly, let the candidate know you’ll be conducting an investigation for the purpose of the promotion. Remember: Don’t overstep your bounds when investigating, otherwise you may find yourself facing a discrimination or privacy invasion lawsuit. Conduct an Internet search to find private companies that can assist your department in conducting background investigations.

5. Bring back the serious candidates for administrative interviews.
When conducting administrative interviews, it’s always a good idea to have an outsider’s perspective. Invite a few fire chiefs from other communities to assist you.

The questions you ask during the administrative interview will be a little different than the peer interviews. In the peer interview, the questions are somewhat objective in nature, attempting to identify special skills the promotional candidate may have or how they’ll interact in a group as a supervisor. The administrative questions are subjective in nature, focusing on supervisory goals and objectives and conflict-resolution skills, and may even involve testing a candidate’s tactical abilities in a skills lab.

Setting up a training scenario, such as a fire in a local strip mall or a large chemical spill in the area, is a good idea because it will allow the interviewers to determine the candidate’s decision-making strategies.

During the exercise, ask the promotional candidate to make decisions based on conditions, your actual operating procedures, mutual aid resources, etc. This will determine whether the candidate is familiar with your operating guidelines and what resources are available to them as a fire officer. It’s also a good opportunity for the candidate to display their knowledge, skills and abilities.

6. Conduct a formalized orientation program to train new company officers.
A new company officer may have a lot of unanswered questions and feel a sense of role ambiguity. If their questions are left unanswered, it may discourage the officer and make them feel like they’re not performing to the best of their ability. It’s therefore imperative that you make the newly promoted officers fully aware of what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.

Consider establishing a formalized orientation program that every new fire officer must attend before they’re sent to their permanent assignment. The program may last a few days, or more than a week, depending on the amount of material you need to cover. Topics should range from administrative issues, such as payroll familiarization, budgets and federal sexual harassment laws to operational issues, such as run cards and complete familiarization of the department’s SOPs and SOGs.

Promoting a firefighter to company officer may be one of the single most important decisions you make in your career. You must invest the time up front and conduct a thorough screening process that includes testing, background investigations and a skills evaluation to ensure you’re promoting the right person. The members of your department, as well as the public, deserve nothing less.

Stephen M. Coleman Jr. is a 20-year veteran of the fire service, currently serving as the deputy chief of the Auburn (Mass.) Fire Department. Coleman holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science and a master’s degree in public administration, and is a graduate of the UMASS Donahue Institute’s Chief Fire Officer Management Training Program. He is an instructor with the Massachusetts Fire Fighting Academy and is also on the adjunct faculty at two local colleges in the Fire Science program.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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