Many men and women aspire to the worthy goal of becoming a firefighter. However, becoming a firefighter is not only a vocation -- it is a calling, requiring a level of dedication, bravery, ability, and fidelity unheard of in other "jobs." Because of this fact, many perspective firefighters are wholly unprepared for the rigorous nature of the firefighter exam process, particularly the oral exam -- for here, seasoned men and women firefighters have the opportunity of scrutinizing the candidate for the very qualities they value in themselves -- a love of the work, dedication to the team, and an ability to perform under the tremendous stress and danger of the job.
The simple fact is that the oral exam is the cornerstone to passing the firefighter exam process. Although it is absolutely necessary to have strong performance in the written and physical components of the exam, without a particularly solid (and interesting) showing in the oral portion, you might as well pack it up and go home. This is simply because it is in the oral exam that you display your character, ability to perform under pressure, as well as a "snapshot" into your ability to enter into the firefighting life. But what exactly is the oral exam, and what are some strategies for passing it?
In simple terms, the oral exam is a forum allowing your interpersonal skills, communication ability, sense of judgment, and decision-making to be on display. Although the format of the judging panel may vary depending on your geographical/city area, you can expect to be faced with a panel of two to five people, who may be firefighters, city workers, or private consultants. However, in most cases, you will come before a panel containing at least one firefighter (usually more), and in many cases, the chief of the department you are applying to. In short, the oral exam is an intimidating process. Therefore, it is essential that you be well prepared.
In specific, you should be prepared for an oral "interview" as well as an oral "board" or exam. This means that the oral exam will at times have the feel of a general "job interview," interspersed with highly specialized (and loaded) exam questions designed to, both, display your knowledge, as well as assess your performance under pressure.
The actual format of the oral exam will vary by city/municipality. However, you can most likely expect that the top scorers on the written portion of the exam will be called to the oral interview. It is particularly important to note that in many areas, this portion of the exam process is simply a pass/fail deal. Therefore, it is extremely important for you as an applicant to "shine."
The First Rule: PRACTICE
Typically, in the interview, you will be faced with at least three officers of the department to which you are applying. It is an understandably intimidating experience for many perspective firefighters, and it is here that your number one oral exam strategy will serve you best -- PRACTICE.
Indeed, what most successful applicants will tell you after passing the oral interview, especially in the more competitive departments, is that the key to surviving the incredible stress during the oral interview is having practiced to the point of memorization. This means that you practice answering interview questions until you have them down by memory, and you feel comfortable with the sound and integrity of your answers. It means that you never feel caught "off guard" by an interview question, but that you, through practice and forethought, are able to genuinely answer any question thrown you way. Do how do you do that?
Many consider the best way to prepare for the oral is to use a video camera (or, at the least, a mirror) in practicing your performance for the interview. Although this can seem strange, it is absolutely essential to have a sense of your general appearance, manner, sound, and confidence when facing the panel. Without this strategy, your practice will be missing the critical aspect of self-critique and improvement of response. In specific, using this technique can significantly improve your overall "appearance" of confidence, and allows you to "tweak" your voice, manner, and rate of speech to a level in which you can let your confidence and knowledge shine. Although many consider "looking at yourself," to be nerve-wracking, it is important to note that through observation and practice, a great deal of performance anxiety can be greatly reduced. In fact, it is simply a fact of life that many individuals hate the idea of "public speaking." Therefore, in anticipating this fear, practicing through it, in a sense "living it" several times in advance, you can eliminate much of the fear in the critical moment, itself.
Another component of the "practice" component of your preparation (again, a great step in eliminating or reducing anxiety), is visiting the location of the interview in advance. Even if you do not have access to the actual room or building of the interview, driving to the location can eliminate the fear of getting lost, stuck in traffic, or any of the problems that may make you late for the interview (a fatal mistake). In addition, being able to mentally visualize where you will be during the actual interview can help in your practice sessions.
Best Foot Forward: Appearance and Manner
Interestingly, an aspect that many applicants fail to consider is that their personal appearance is an essential indicator of "who they are." In consideration of this fact, you must, at all costs, dress professionally. In specific, this means that you wear a suit and tie if you are a man, and a professional suit or similar attire if you are a woman. Further, you should be well groomed and devoid of any noticeable jewelry. Here, it is of particular importance that a woman applicant avoid the appearance of being overly feminine or "frilly." Remember, although firefighting has become an increasingly "equal opportunity" occupation, women still have the burden of having to prove that they can be "one of the guys." Fair or not, giving the impression that you are "high maintenance," can be the kiss of death.
Another extremely important part of your interview what is known as your "bearing." This means that you must exert a confident, professional manner from the moment you arrive for your interview (even before the actual interview process). Remember, you are being rated from the moment you arrive. Avoid being overly confident -- this can be considered arrogant. Instead, practice simple natural confidence. Here, it may be useful to practice with a friend or family member in advance. In addition, be bright and enthusiastic, not bored and seeming to have "seen it all before."
The Exam: So what are they going to ask?
Of course, your actual responses to the oral exam are just as important in demonstrating "who you are" as your appearance and manner. However, here it is important to keep in mind that the oral exam is not strictly "about the questions." After all, you presumably have demonstrated your knowledge in the written portion of the exam. Instead, the oral exam questions are a tool used to assess just "who you are," what your values and personality are like, and how well you reason and perform under pressure. That said, typical questions include the following:
1. Tell us about yourself.
2. Why do you want to be a firefighter? When and how did you decide on this career?
3. What does a firefighter do? How are you qualified?
4. What have you done to prepare for this position?