When I told a colleague I was preparing a presentation on building character in the 21st-century fire service, he replied, "The best way to build character in the fire service is to hire people of character and teach them to be firefighters."
This approach – hiring the people you want and teaching them to be firefighters – was the common practice a few decades ago. Before formal education programs, standards and certifications, most people came to the fire service because they knew someone who was a firefighter and had that person's endorsement for entering the service. In many cases, these connections involved family relationships.
The logic was: Joe is a good guy. We know Joe and trust him. Therefore, his brother/cousin/son/Army buddy must also be a good guy whom we can trust and work with. And likely in the majority of cases, this logic held true.
Of course, there were problems with this system as well. Fire departments tended to be closed groups with little access for anyone who might be new or different. Homogenous groups tended to foster homogenous skill sets and ideas. Fire departments did not do a good job representing their service communities in their members. And there was little attention to establishing consistent standards of skill and education.
Qualifications for being a firefighter
Things have changed in the past 40 years. Now, potential firefighter candidates go through a long list of tests and certification checks before even being considered for inclusion. Aspiring firefighters can go to school on their own to get necessary certifications and build an impressive resume of qualifications for the job. Advances in technology mean that much of the hiring process can take place virtually, without even meeting face-to-face with a candidate or getting to know that person at all.
There are certainly advantages to the newer way of hiring, especially in a time when some fire departments receive thousands of applications for just a few positions. But I fear something might be getting lost in the process as well.
If hiring people of character is a priority, how can we measure or assess character in the hiring process? How can existing systems be used or adapted to include attention to character along with other qualifications?
Measuring character through interview questions
Many hiring processes currently include aspects that go to character, although sometimes in a negative way. For example, screenings such as polygraphs and psychological assessments tend to be designed to weed out undesirable candidates, rather than highlight those who excel. Background checks are often designed the same way with a disqualifying checklist as the basis. Even personal references are often only seen as neutral at best.
So what could a fire department hiring process do to get at deeper aspects of character that might affect someone's suitability and success as a firefighter? A couple possibilities exist.
First, look at candidates' individual histories or stories. What obstacles have they overcome? What commitments have they made in their personal and professional lives? What have they achieved? What do they aspire to?
When looking at each person's story, it is important to listen beyond a checklist. Some fire departments, such as in Bridgeport, Connecticut, recognize that one mistake in the past, if handled well by the candidate, can actually be character building, rather than disqualifying. Their second chances program allows for people with issues from the past to explain their side of the story before a peer review committee and be on probation for a year if accepted for employment.
When developing job interview questions, try to dig deeper than the standard format. Questions should always be cleared with the HR/legal team to avoid unconscious bias, but that doesn't mean you can't talk about important things in a job interview.
Instead of asking about strengths and weaknesses, ask, "If you could do over one decision in your life, what would you do differently?"'
Instead of asking what they are most proud of in their lives, ask, "What do you want your legacy to be after a full career?"
There are many ways to design interview questions that evoke honest and thoughtful consideration rather than stock responses.
Shaping the fire service culture and values
Ultimately, considering character in hiring requires a commitment to understanding each person as an individual. Some organizations might say that they don't have time for that, but what could be more important than choosing the people that will be part of the department for decades, and who will shape the culture and values of the organization in years to come?