Each cycle of our EMT class here at South Metro, I tend to have the same conversation. It usually happens sometime toward the end of the second week, but sometimes sooner. It is almost always after class. It begins with one of my students approaching me while I’m gathering my things and putting my laptop away.
The conversation begins like this, “So…I’m taking the EMT class because I’d really like a job in the fire service. What other things should I be doing besides becoming an EMT? How should I prepare for the testing process?” Once the question has been asked, the group of students interested in hearing the answer invariably grows to dozen or so. The conversation can go on for a considerable amount of time depending on how far into the weeds the students are willing to travel.
Over the years, as I’ve watched the success and failure of so many would-be firefighter candidates, my advice has changed and become more unconventional. These are the things I seem to find myself saying over and over again, each time a new crop of candidates shows up. I think you’ll find this advice different from a lot of the advice you might read out there. That’s what makes it so valuable.
1) Recognize that a firefighter is something that you are, not something that you do.
This can be hard to wrap your brain around so let me deconstruct it. That wasn’t a platitude. It wasn’t a bumper sticker. It’s the honest truth. Yes firefighting is a job. But the people who are successful at it long term are the people who recognize that it’s something that they were simply born to do.
I can immediately tell the difference between someone who has embraced themselves as a firefighter and someone who is still looking at it as a possible job option. Do you want to know how I can tell? People who understand this concept never ask, “How long will it take me to become a firefighter?” They don’t ask this incredibly common question for two reasons. First, they don’t really care. They know that they are on the road to becoming a firefighter. They know that the journey will be long and they have made peace with that idea. Firefighting is their life’s ambition. Life is (hopefully) long. They will get there when they get there.
They also don’t ask because, in their heart, they already are a firefighter. The job offer is just another phase of their firefighting life. How do you ask how long it will take to become something that you already are?
Decide that you are a firefighter first. Then go find your job. Don’t worry about time frames. Things will happen when they happen. You just concentrate on waking up each morning doing whatever it is you need to do that day to be the best firefighter you can be. The rest will work itself out in good time.
2) Lose any ideas about firefighting being about “you”.
I’ll put it plainly. Some folks want to be firefighters because they want to spend their lives in the service of others and some people want to be firefighters because they think that it will be cool and fun. Much of the fire service testing process is designed to try to weed out the self-centered candidates from the others-centered candidates.
If you want to be a firefighter because you think you will look good in the uniform and you think you will feel cool telling people all about your job and you think your neighbors and friends will be impressed and you think you will earn a decent salary and you think that you will have all the good stories to tell and you blah, blah blah blah you, you, you…. You will probably struggle to realize your dream of being a firefighter.
Firefighting is an intensely service oriented profession. It is about being of service to others. You will need to place yourself second. You will need to wake up in the middle of the night to help people with some fairly trivial problems. You will need to clean up drunk peoples puke. You will need to hold elderly peoples hands when they are frightened and uncomfortable. You will need to take all manner of abuse from people who dislike you for no good reason.
The only you in firefighting is the you that is serving other people. If you don’t embrace that idea, you will struggle to get the job and you will struggle to be successful in the job.
3) Do something that you love and do it really well.
Fire departments aren’t looking for interchangeable cogs that have come to their jobs through the same pathway and the same experiences. Folks always seem to want to know the perfect combination of pre-firefighting experience. There is no perfect combination. There is no single road that leads to fire service Oz. It may take you a while to realize your dream of becoming a full-time paid firefighter. Until that day comes, do what you love doing and do it well. Your success in whatever it is that you are doing will be more helpful than any specific job experience.
I’m currently working with an former marine sniper, a former electrician, a former landscaper and a former nurse. Our department has former lawyers, former farmers, former physicians assistants and former corporate accountants. Their previous jobs have nothing in common but one thing that all these individuals have in common is that they were very good at what they did before becoming a firefighter and they were happy in their former professions. That’s what made the real difference for all of them.
They got their jobs because of who they were, not because of what they did. You can follow any path to the fire service. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you have to be a volunteer firefighter or an E.R. tech or a private ambulance EMT or a certified paramedic. You have to be a good person who wants to serve others. Relevant job experience can help but don’t be too certain that you know exactly what the panel will see as “relevant”.
4) Have a servants heart.
I know that I’ve belabored this point a bit but I want to harp on it one more time and explore some aspects of it that you might not have considered. When we think about a firefighter serving others, we tend to think about it solely in the context of the fire service job, but someone who has a true servants heart desires to serve others both in and out of uniform.
Lots of folks think that the way to prove that they really want to be a firefighter is to go volunteer to be a firefighter or go through a paid academy to be trained to be a firefighter. Those are great options and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from folks who choose to volunteer with a local department or pursue a firefighting degree. Fire service candidates commonly choose those options because they are good options.
There’s another option that far fewer candidates pursue and I think that it is even more compelling than the traditional route. (Hint – one of the reasons it’s so compelling is because so few candidates pursue it as a viable option.) My suggestion is that you chose to do something that involves volunteerism and service that has nothing to do with the fire service. This is a great way to develop your servants heart and the opportunities are endless. Lead a youth activity group. Build houses for disabled veterans. Go on overseas mission trips to aid impoverished communities. Dig wells in Africa. Unload trucks at the local food bank. The list of options goes on and on.
Fire service hiring panels aren’t looking for another Community College fire service degree with volunteer fire service experience. They’ve already seen that candidate and they will continue to see that candidate again and again. They are looking for people who truly have a heart to be of service to their community. The very best way to demonstrate that is to go out and truly serve your community. Serve your community in ways that don’t obviously impart any special status on you or serve your ego and you will demonstrate your desire to serve in a convincing way.
When you serve your community in ways that have nothing to do with fire fighting, the message you send is a powerful one. You say, “I don’t have a desire to serve as a fire fighter, I simply have a desire to serve.” That will make you a better fire fighter.
5) Be your authentic self.
The most successful fire service interview candidates are the ones that have figured out how to bring their authentic selves to the interview process. While an interview panel will ask you many questions, the single most important question they ask will never be verbalized. All interview panelists are silently asking themselves, “Would I want to work with this person?” Knowing that, you may feel a great deal of pressure to put on an artificial front. Don’t let your own insecurity rob you of your individuality.
The poet May Sarton once said that we have to dare to be ourselves, no matter how frightening that may be. I love the way she worded that. Recognize that being yourself can be daring but it can also be tremendously refreshing for an interview panel that has experienced dozens of candidates with false smiles and forced answers. Have confidence that you already are everything that you need to be to begin your career.
Let go of the idea that you need to be something different than your current self to become a firefighter. Find all of the best that is already within you and bring that forward. Not just on testing day, but every day. The more you seek your authentic best self in your daily life, the more natural it will be for you to let that person come out during your fire service interview.
I wish you the best of luck in all of your future endeavors.