Career Matters: Next Step to Promotion

Anthony Kastros
The more you sit in the seat, run calls, handle administrative issues in the firehouse, deal with conflict, and make decisions, the more you will make the mental shift. (Wayne Barrall photo)

In the first two articles of this column, we discussed the assessment center orientation and checking your bags at the door. Now we move on to the next critical step: Be the Officer!

What does that mean? Glad you asked! Being the officer means going into the assessment center with the mindset as though you have already been promoted, not like a candidate taking a test. Go in as the rank to which you are aspiring. Never walk in as though you are taking a test. If you are going into a lieutenant process, walk in as the lieutenant. If captain, walk in as the captain. For a battalion chief assessment center, walk in as the battalion chief.

Why? First, the assessment center exercises place you in the role of officer. That’s how your knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are assessed and scored. Directions for a typical exercise will start out with, “You are the captain of Engine 5, today is Monday, May 14, and it’s your first day as a new officer.” Then the directions will continue with the task/exercise at hand. “You are about to meet with your engineer…” (or whatever the case may be).

The point is that you are expected to perform as an officer, not a test-taker. A captain, for example, not a candidate. This mindset is very powerful and will unleash your potential. Rather than walking into a test, you are walking into your firehouse, battalion office, etc. This takes away the pressure of testing, scoring, competing, being evaluated, and all the other neuroses that accompany a test. Your nerves will give way to being excited to do the job that you know, in your heart, you can do.

How many times have you seen a firefighter, who would make a great officer, fold like a cheap tent in the assessment center? He or she “just can’t take a test.” This is often an experienced, natural leader, whom everyone wants to see succeed. Unfortunately, he/she obsesses about the test: who is administering the test, who is assessing and proctoring the test, how the test will be scored, what the exercises are on the test, how many candidates are taking the test, how many openings are going to be filled by the test, and on and on and on. Does this sound familiar? It’s all too common.

The problem is that this test obsession creates test anxiety, which dampens your ability to remain calm, confident, focused, poised, and be … the officer! Look at it this way, would you ever follow an officer who worried what everyone thought, if everyone liked him, or if he always made the right decision? Of course not. This job, especially an officer’s role, is too dynamic and filled with unknowns to wait to have all the time and all the information before deciding.

The good news is that walking in as the officer is exactly what is expected of you! Assessors don’t want candidates, we want captains. We don’t want lackies, we want lieutenants. We don’t want boring, self-doubting test-takers, we want battalion chiefs.

Assessors are charged with the responsibility of choosing fire officers. This is a responsibility we do not take lightly. You could literally be making life-and-death decisions on your first shift. To that end, we expect decisive, focused, confident, skilled tacticians, problem solvers, and leaders!

When you walk in as the officer, the nerves melt away. Wake up and tell yourself, “I am Lieutenant Smith, and I can’t wait to go to work today and lead my crew.” As you move through the exercises, simply solve the challenges given to you, like a real officer. Don’t try to be perfect, be excellent. If you worry about making a mistake, or doing a perfect job, you will put pressure on yourself. Certainly, do not think about what the assessor is thinking or how you are scoring.

The assessors will sense your resolve and mindset as an officer. Your nerves will melt away, and you will truly perform at your potential rather than be undermined by your own intrusive and disruptive thoughts as you go. Again, think of the last fire you fought. You didn’t look around wondering what bystanders thought; you did your job! Same goes in the assessment center.

This mental paradigm shift does not happen overnight. It takes time. Each day, you should ride in the seat and ask your current boss to mentor you. Take every opportunity to get in front of people: your crew, civilians, other companies, classes, etc. Wake up every day, look in the mirror, and say, “Good morning, Captain Jones!”

The more you sit in the seat, run calls, handle administrative issues in the firehouse, deal with conflict, and make decisions, the more you will make the mental shift. Soon, you will be eager. As you practice mock exercises and ask friends/mentors to score you, you will notice the nerves melting away.

Introduce yourself as the officer in the assessment center. Many students ask, “Doesn’t that sound arrogant?” The answer is no, not if you know how to do it. Two caveats exist. First, you must believe in yourself and see yourself as an officer. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should the assessors? See yourself as the lieutenant, captain, or chief. If you have done the work described in the preceding paragraphs, it will be easy. You are just walking into your firehouse.

That said, don’t be cocky or arrogant. “Hey, I’m Lieutenant Jones. I said that because you’ll see I’m already there. After this interview, you’ll be ready to promote me.” NO!

Second, the exercise should allow a natural introduction as the officer. For example, if you are in a simulation, counseling session, oral presentation, or other exercise in which the directions begin with “You are the Lieutenant of Engine 2. Today is May 18 …” then it’s easy.

The challenge comes when you are in an interview as part of the assessment center, presenting an oral resume, or the “crew” is comprised of people you know or would typically know because your department is smaller in size.

Let’s look at some strategies for these scenarios. When directions present you as the officer, simply walk in confidently, smile, look them in the eye, extend your hand, and give a hearty handshake as you say, “Good afternoon, Captain Smith, great to be here!”

If you know the assessors, or would know them, just introduce yourself as the officer and you could say, “I know we have worked together a lot. Having said that, I have never had the privilege of working with you as your captain. This is a real honor, and I look forward to working together.”

In an interview or oral presentation in which you are to present your KSAs for the position to assessors as part of the assessment center process, introduce yourself as above. Then, before beginning the interview or presentation, you could say, “Let me explain why I introduced myself as a battalion chief in this process. This job is vital, and I take the responsibility very seriously. To best answer your questions, I will frame them from the perspective of a battalion chief to demonstrate my mindset.” This is just one example. Hopefully you get the point.

While answering questions, frame each answer in the rank at hand. For example, you may be asked, “What does discipline mean to you?” An answer that falls short would be, “Discipline is important to me and is crucial to ensuring safety and that we meet the mission each day.” It sounds decent, but it completely misses the opportunity and is a canned response.

An answer that makes the connection to the rank would be, “The root word of discipline is ‘disciple,’ which means follower. To me, discipline means followership. The objective of discipline is to get the troops to follow guidelines or a leader. As a battalion chief, I define discipline in three categories: proactive, reactive, and punitive. The proactive realm is where I will spend most of my time. I will continually meet with my company officers, conduct realistic multi-company drills, and give clear expectations. The reactive realm is when I would meet with a captain if his performance or that of his crew is below standard. This would involve coaching, counseling, and developing a performance improvement plan. Finally, punitive discipline is when I would activate an investigation and pass it up the chain appropriately. As a battalion chief, all three are available to me, but I would spend most of my time in the proactive realm.”

See the difference? Did you envision the chief doing the job as you read the answer? That’s being the officer!

Anthony Kastros is a 31-year veteran of the fire service, a battalion chief for Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire, and founder of 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.  He was the FDIC International keynote speaker in 2013.  He can be reached at