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Hiring for Character and Competency in the Fire Service

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University 

Recently, I read an online post that discussed hiring for character. Hiring for character has long been a debate among my colleagues in the fire service.

Some people believe we should hire for certification and knowledge in fire and emergency medical services (EMS) skills, arguing that this type of hiring is what we are paid to perform. Our personnel should be the best at their technical skills.

Others—including myself—say that we should hire people whose character, values and intellectual abilities align with our own. We can always train people on the technical competencies of working in EMS and the fire service.

[Related: The Challenges of Managing Millennial Firefighters after Baby Boomers Retire]

In my early years in the fire service, I believed in hiring the most talented firefighters and paramedics. But as I ascended the ranks in the fire department and studied companies that are known for high performance, I have changed to the hiring-for-character way of thinking.

The Fire Service Is a Technical-Driven Profession

Due to the highly technical nature of the firefighting profession, it makes sense to hire the most technically competent and experienced people. Fire service jobs have many technical aspects, such as knowing how to operate different equipment and being able to perform tasks based on policy and procedures. However, working in the fire service also requires the ability to know when policies and procedures will not work and to use out-of-the-box thinking to find a solution to a problem.

For these reasons, hiring people with technical competence and experience works best. After all, if you employ people who cannot think on their feet or who do not know how to perform needed tasks, they are a failure to the community they serve. In some cases, citizens can die because a solution wasn’t found in time.

Why a Fire Service Should Be a Value-Driven Organization

The technical aspects of fire service jobs are very important, but it’s important to ensure we hire a person with the proper character. If highly talented people believe that they are too talented to answer some types of calls and feel such work is beneath them (such as calls to a nursing home) the care they offer will be subpar and citizens will be unhappy. For victims, it’s often how you are treated that matters most in a time of need, not the ultimate outcome of that treatment.

The fire service is a service-based organization. Despite the technical aspects of our jobs, we all entered the fire service with a public service mindset. This mindset was at the core of our reason to join, not to mention the cool stuff the recruiters said we would get to do.

Because of our service-minded profession, we can adopt the hiring, promotion, and retention models from Southwest Airlines, Chik-fil-A, and other high-profile companies that focus on culture and values. These companies continue to satisfy the needs of their customers year after year because they make good choices in the people they hire.

While the fire service is not in the business of making a profit, we are in the customer satisfaction business. Many fire service organizations need to keep their customers happy to ensure that levies that provide necessary funding are voted upon in a positive fashion by those same customers.

Balancing Candidates’ Talent and Values when Hiring

Because firefighters and paramedics need certifications, we must ensure we hire and promote people based on a balance of talent and values. Hiring a person with great values who does not process the cognitive ability to pass the certification tests will only be a waste of time and effort. We must ensure both talent and values are present in sufficient quantities to produce the proper candidate.

I suggest that fire service candidates should first undergo the initial written testing test for cognitive abilities, such as English, reading comprehension, mathematical computation and reasoning. In addition, we can test for physical abilities. These examinations can come in the form of the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), which is the known metric agreed upon by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) to determine if candidates have the physical abilities to perform firefighting duties.

Next, a psychological testing assessment could be conducted. There are many online psychological tests and some in-person versions; each has their advantages and disadvantages. The key is to understand the applicant’s background and determining how the test coincides with the candidate’s daily behavior.

There would also be a background check that scans a candidate’s record for criminal or illegal behavior. Your local laws will dictate what you can do in terms of testing in this area.

Candidates who pass all of these tests could then be interviewed. Some people may argue that interviewing should come at an earlier stage, but I have not seen any candidates come in and tell the interview panel that they have a poor set of values and commit criminal actions on a regular basis.

Rather than spending all your valuable staff time interviewing, it is better to first ascertain if candidates can stand up to an examination of their character, values and physical abilities. By hiring for both character and competency, fire service management can ensure that communities are served by the best possible people they can hire.

characterAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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