By Anthony Kastros
Assessment centers are sweeping the American fire service and have been for decades. Fire departments are going to this format for choosing officers of all ranks, especially lieutenant, captain, and battalion chief. While levels above battalion chief are often political appointments, rest assured the process at least involved an interview. If your department does not use an assessment center now, it is likely to do so in the next three to five years, or less.
Why has this testing model become so profoundly used in determining fire officers and leaders in other industries? The answer is simple: It works! The assessment center mimics a day in the life of the job at hand. You are thrust into the deep end of the pool to either drown or swim. You cannot fake it, pay lip service, or pretend. You either have the skills or don’t.
Interviews alone are susceptible to silver-tongued devils who may be able to sell themselves. While no promotional process is perfect, assessment centers force the candidate to exhibit the actual knowledge, skills, and abilities of the job. A great analogy is weight lifting. In an interview, you could say that you can bench press 300 pounds 10 times. The assessment center has the bench and the weights, with assessors who say, “Show us!”
So, what is at stake? Duty, honor, country, and lives! Do you want your boss to get promoted because he was a good test taker, because he had the gift of gab, or because he actually had the skills?
Changing Fire Service
The American fire service is in a season of unprecedented challenges. One of the most significant is the need for new officers of all ranks. Our seasoned old salts are retiring by the boatload. In addition, the economy is on the upswing, so fire departments are expanding again. The combination makes this a particularly unique time in which promotional opportunities are likely to increase.
Along with the opportunities are unparalleled challenges facing the modern fire officer, regardless of rank. The public sector is changing. Fiscal scrutiny, weakened public trust, political/socio-economic discord, and changing threats are just some of the factors that set the backdrop of the modern public service landscape.
The fire service is particularly challenged because we are facing a “new normal” redefined daily. Whether the Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas; the deadly fires in Northern California; Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; or the looming threat of another terrorist attack that could become the new 9/11, we are constantly evolving. And let’s not forget the fires, either. Our comrades who produced the Underwriters Laboratories/National Institute of Standards and Technology studies have reminded us that the enemy and battlefield are ever more volatile and lethal.
Our workforce has changed, too. The millennials are smart, eager, educated, and independent and have been told to ask questions. From a very young age, this generation has been told to be inquisitive, ask why, and question everything.
And don’t forget about technology. We seem to have more ways to communicate but have a harder time understanding each other. We can text, tweet, chirp, post, e-mail, and emoji our way through the day without ever looking someone in the eye or talking to him.
The Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department went to the assessment center testing process in 2007 after decades of written tests and interviews. It was experiencing unprecedented issues in the workplace that cost the city millions of dollars. The decision was made to more thoroughly scrutinize the knowledge, skills, and abilities of front-line supervisors in the promotional process.
Enter the assessment center. The new Los Angeles officer candidates were tested to see if they possessed more conflict resolution, risk management, communication, and leadership skills. In addition, they were evaluated on strategy, tactics, incident command, and a host of other emergency operations dimensions. Their fire simulation exercise involved a high-rise fire and gas leak on the 15th floor in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. It is not easy to fake your way through that type of scenario.
Simulations like this are only on part of the myriad exercises that you may face in the assessment center. Others include in-baskets, modified in-baskets, teaching demonstrations, oral presentations, visual resumes, situational judgment tests, candidate qualifications questionnaires, supervisory exercises, written essays, reports, role plays/counseling sessions, interviews, and whatever else the folks who build these exams can think of.
Assessing the Assessment center
This column will cover how to shed your emotional baggage before you go in, how to have the proper mentality, how to prepare for the process, who the assessors are, and key points to each of the above-mentioned exercises.
The biggest message you should get from this first column is that you must prepare for the job if you want to prepare for the test! Unlike a written test in which you can study or even cram last minute, you must truly practice and train for the assessment center over time. A written test is simply about memorizing information and regurgitating it. The assessment center is about performance. You may be able to cram the night before a written test and pull it off with a passing score, but that will not work in an assessment center.
Think of the Firefighter Combat Challenge. It takes months, or even years, of training to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to compete—let alone win. That’s because it’s all about performance, not recall. You must physically perform the skills. Like the above weight lifting example, you cannot fake it. You need to practice, and perfect practice makes for perfect performance.
Take oral communication, for example. Most firefighters have no problem holding court at the kitchen table in the firehouse, yet put them in front of an assessment panel and they fold like a cheap tent. Most Americans list public speaking as their number one fear, even above dying. I certainly see that in my workshops. No matter where I go around the country, I hear that public speaking is the biggest challenge for aspiring officers.
So, reading about better communication techniques makes as much sense as reading about weight lifting. It will only get you so far. You must do the sets and the reps in the “gym” of officer development. Get in front of people, record yourself, learn, and repeat.
The same applies for every skill or exercise in the job and in the test. The two are joined at the hip.
Anthony Kastros is a 31-year veteran of the fire service, battalion chief for Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire, and founder of Trainfirefighters.com. He is author of the Fire Engineering book and video series Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center and video series Mastering Fireground Command: Calming the Chaos, and Mastering Unified Command: From Hometown to Homeland. Kastros was the FDIC International keynote speaker in 2013. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.