Pre-employment psychological screening: What’s next for the fire service?

A law enforcement tool could be the framework we need to develop a fire service-focused model


There’s a great deal of discussion in fire service circles these days about using pre-employment psychological screening as part a fire and EMS department’s hiring process. But what does the fire service really need or want regarding such screenings? Have you ever really considered the psychological qualities that should be used evaluated as part of a pre-employment assessments of potential firefighters?

Many years ago, the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) in California developed a pre-employment psychological screening process for law enforcement officers. This framework and process could be used by the fire service to develop a manual for screening potential new hires. After all, we don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” here, but we do need such a resource that’s fire service specific.

Let’s review the POST screening process and manual, and consider how a similar model could be developed for the fire service.

What are the desired psychological qualities that should be used for pre-employment assessments for potential firefighters?
What are the desired psychological qualities that should be used for pre-employment assessments for potential firefighters? (Photo/LACoFD)

Law enforcement screening manual

POST sets minimum selection and training standards for California law enforcement officers, and its purpose is to promote professionalism in law enforcement agencies and officers.

First published in 1984, the POST Peace Officer Psychological Screening Manual has been revised several times; the current edition was published in January 2022.

“The POST Peace Officer Psychological Screening Manual provides guidance on all phases and aspects of the psychological evaluation process, from the selection and training of screening psychologists, to procedures for reaching a suitability determination and beyond. This guidance is intended to clarify and provide support on the conduct of pre-employment peace officer psychological evaluations in compliance with federal and state law, regulations, and professional standards. Although much of the information in the manual is intended for screening psychologists, a number of sections are equally, and in some cases, more relevant, to hiring authorities and others involved in peace officer hiring.”

The purpose of the manual is to provide psychologists who work with law enforcement agencies with the necessary guidance and direction to effectively work with a unique population – potential law enforcement officers – starting with this question: Based on a job description, what are the psychological qualities that make a good law enforcement officer?

Development and validation of POST screening dimensions

The process used by the commission to develop psychological screening dimensions is far too great to review in a single article, but here’s a synopsis of that process:

Phase 1: Review of Past Job Analysis Information. This review includes looking at:

  • Peace Officer Job Performance Problems (e.g., excessive/inappropriate use of force, misuse of authority, dishonesty)
  • Peace Officer Essential Job Functions (e.g., detecting and investigating crimes, apprehending and arresting suspects, preparing for and presenting legal testimony).
  • Peace Officer Psychological Job Demands (e.g., discretionary use of force, decision-making under extreme pressure/stress, willingness to use force).

What could this look like for firefighters? Not surprisingly, there would be many similarities with our law enforcement colleagues:

  • Firefighter Job Performance Problems (e.g., failure to follow policy or SOGs, misuse of authority, dishonesty).
  • Firefighter Essential Job Functions (e.g., following orders, completing fire suppression tasks, providing patient care, completing reports).
  • Firefighter Psychological Job Demands (e.g., decision-making under extreme pressure/stress, exposure to physical and psychological trauma).

Phase 2: Development of the POST Job Analysis Questionnaires. The commission created and administered a series of job analysis questionnaires. For its first questionnaire, they listed the traits identified during the earlier phases of the project and asked raters to indicate their importance to successful job performance. That questionnaire was administered to 125 subject matter experts (SMEs) consisting of POST law enforcement consultants, field training officers, representatives of the Peace Officer Research Advisory Council (PORAC), background investigators, and academy instructors.

The fire service connection: Like the POST commission, the developers of a questionnaire like this should cast a wide net to engage fire officers of all ranks, firefighters, cross-trained firefighters, instructors, IAFF members and IAFC members.

Phase 3: Focus Groups. A series of focus groups were held among participants including 19 SMEs from law enforcement agencies across California, representing organizational levels from line officer to captain to validate the initial set of psychological attributes and identify underlying job-specific behaviors. The results of these meetings included refinements to the psychological categories and specific job-related behaviors underlying each competence.

The fire service connection: For any such effort to have credibility with incumbent firefighters and officers, it will be critical to obtain feedback from active members.

Phase 4: Critical Incidents. This final phase involved the creation of a list of “critical incidents,” though not in the context that we normally think of “critical incidents” in public safety (i.e., an event that has a stressful impact sufficient to overwhelm the usually effective coping skills of an individual). Instead, the critical incident method of job analysis asked SMEs to recall specific incidents that illustrate especially effective or ineffective performance. Each critical incident described a demanding or challenging situation the respondent encountered on the job, the action(s) taken to deal with the situation, and the resulting consequence or outcome. These critical incidents served to further establish the validity of the job analysis results, as well as to provide useful information to psychologists regarding the behavioral manifestations of the peace officer psychological dimensions.

10 psychological screening dimensions

The commission developed a list of Psychological Screening Dimensions:

  1. Social competence involves communicating with others in a tactful and respectful manner and showing sensitivity and concern in one’s daily interactions.
  2. Teamwork involves working effectively with others to accomplish goals, as well as subordinating personal interests for the good of the working group and the organization.
  3. Adaptability/flexibility involves the ability to change gears and easily adjust to the many different, sudden, and sometimes competing demands of the job.
  4. Conscientiousness/dependability involves diligent, reliable, conscientious work patterns, and performing in a timely, logical manner in accordance with rules, regulations, and organizational policies.
  5. Impulse control/attention to safety involves taking proper precautions and avoiding impulsive and/or unnecessarily risky behavior to ensure the safety of oneself and others.
  6. Integrity/ethics involves maintaining high standards of personal conduct. It consists of attributes such as honesty, impartiality, trustworthiness, and abiding with laws, regulations, and procedures.
  7. Emotional regulation/stress tolerance involves the ability to maintain composure and stay in control, particularly during time-critical emergency events and other stressful situations.
  8. Decision-making/judgment involves common sense, “street smarts” and the ability to make sound decisions, demonstrated by the ability to size up situations quickly to determine and take the appropriate action.
  9. Assertiveness/persuasiveness involves unhesitatingly taking control of situations in a calm and appropriately assertive manner, even under dangerous or adverse conditions.
  10. Substance abuse/other risk-taking behavior involves avoiding participation in behavior that is inappropriate, self-damaging, and can adversely impact organizational functioning.

The behavioral definitions and the specific examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior underlying each dimension provide a vehicle for psychologists and hiring authorities to establish agency-specific risk thresholds and to discuss the suitability of individual peace officer candidates. A uniform taxonomy of peace officer psychological constructs also supports consistency in evaluations across psychologists and agencies, as well as serving as an organizing structure for information collected from tests, interview responses, and personal history information in support of determinations of psychological suitability.

Next steps for the fire service

So, my question for fire service leaders is again, what are the desired psychological qualities that should be used for pre-employment assessments for potential firefighters? A law enforcement officer isn’t asked to do medical triage, but a firefighter or paramedic would be, so wouldn’t decision-making/judgment be a desired psychological quality for a new firefighter?

The Fire Service Psychological Association (FSPA) is an organization composed of psychologists and fire service leaders who are committed to “bridging the gap between psychology and the fire service.” Several psychologist members of FSPA have experience working with the California POST program and see the value of developing a similar manual, as currently there is no such “playbook” for mental health professionals to use when working with fire departments. These psychologists feel strongly that the fire service should develop its own manual to ensure validity and consistency for such an important endeavor.

The FSPA believes that such a process should start with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) bringing together national fire service organizations identified in the Wingspread VI report to develop a plan. With this in mind, I look to you – the members of the IAFC, IAFF, FDSOA, NFPA and others – to consider what your organization can do to further this project. We know how important the job screenings can be, and this could be an important next step in advancing this process.

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