Set yourself apart from the others
By Chad Costa
Being prepared for the greatest job in the world is a never-ending task. Being prepared includes achieving a high level of education, becoming an EMT or paramedic, achieving fire service certifications, and having knowledge and experience in the job or skills related to the job. Candidates must combine these external achievements with internal achievements that include a positive attitude, work ethic, and reputable reputation. Achieving these accomplishments sets you up for becoming a desired employee and sets you apart from many attempting to achieve the same goal.
We can never stop learning or gaining experience. That’s what we love about this career. The fire service changes constantly, and as soon as you think you have it whipped it whips you. The adage “It is a job to get a job” is spot on. It’s important to stay focused and committed to the grind. Don’t let your guard down. I’ve seen many great candidates lose focus and get off track. This will show in your resume or overall profile. Unfortunately, evaluators tend to have a hard time looking at the whole picture and focus on what has happened lately. So, no matter how tough it gets or how discouraged you may be, remember that it will be worth it in the end.
Set Yourself Aside
Many times, there will be a substantial number of candidates applying for the same position. In larger departments, you may see thousands of candidates applying for a few jobs. Knowing that your competition is stiff and the numbers are stacked against you helps clarify your path to one of those positions. A successful candidate is one who stood out in one or many ways. Having the basic qualifications are important and necessary, but they won’t necessarily get you the job. I tell candidates that what they are selling is the same car that every other candidate is selling. They key is to sell a car that is different and desirable. The ability to sell one of those special cars can be achieved in many ways. Have a skill or a certain type of training that is rare or hard to come by. My niche in the fire service revolves around technology and communications. This wasn’t something I really thought I would lean on but when trying to stand out and become a value to an organization, the Technology and Communication track fell right in my lap. I obviously have strived to increase my knowledge and abilities in many other ways, but having a specialty or a skill that is useful to an organization will help push you to the top. Other examples are hazmat specialists and people with expanded training in any aspect of the fire service. Just having what everyone else has will not be enough. Find something that makes you stand out and become a desired value.
Education is one of the most discussed topics in today’s fire service conversations regarding minimum qualifications. There are always two sides regarding levels of needed education. One side says this job can’t be taught in a classroom and a degree doesn’t teach you how to fight fire. The other side argues education is the pathway to success and instills traits and knowledge that you can’t learn on the job. I sit somewhere in the middle on this topic. Having to return to college at age 35 with a wife and two young children was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career. I went back to school to receive my chief officer and bachelor’s degree to be eligible for the battalion chief promotional exam. During those years of school, I wanted to quit many times. The amount of time and money was hard to swallow, but I stayed the course. I continued for two reasons: One was to get a job I wanted, and the other was because I felt it made me better at my job and improved my administrative capabilities. Today, as I look back, I am so glad I stayed with it. Could I do the job without it? Yes. But my capabilities have greatly improved, and I believe I am more of an asset to the organization than before. So, I highly recommend obtaining a high level of education. You may not think you need it as an entry level firefighter, but someday when you want to promote you will be glad you followed through. Additionally, as agencies increase their technology capabilities, I firmly believe that education is going to continue to grow as a priority and it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind.
Fire service experience is a major plus when choosing between candidates. The candidates seem to be getting younger and younger. Fire service along with life experience is hard to find as there has been so much turnover within the past decade. Additionally, many agencies are looking for paramedics, and the competition has become stiff. Candidates need to focus on all areas of their resumes but adding volunteer, part/full time, and/or ambulance experience is a key to success. Having a background in the service helps your case because the evaluators can gain intel on your knowledge, skills, and abilities. It’s important to remember that this is a small family, and how you act and perform will follow you throughout your career. Take every opportunity to gain experience or knowledge. I can promise that all your work experiences will be followed up on by a thorough background investigation, and it’s important that no red flags present themselves.
Attitude and Work Ethic
I truly believe that I made it to where I am today mainly from my work ethic and self-motivation. Growing up on a ranch, my father instilled a work ethic that has followed me throughout my career. Departments are looking for those candidates who are teachable and self-motivated and who will work without complaints or heartache. We need to remember that this service is based on blue collar principles where hands-on skills and dedication catapult you to the top. In general, those who succeed are the ones who put in the work and don’t have to be told how to get there.
Being self-motivated is a trait that is imperative for all up-and-coming firefighters. This is not a service where people will hold your hand and show you a path to success. It takes effort and dedication, and many times it takes you seeking out the path and fighting for success. No matter how hard it gets, keep grinding because in the end you will have the best job in the world, and it will all be worth it.
Volunteer and Community Service
The fire service is a full-service, all-risk agency. The core values of every organization revolve around customer service and doing everything we can to help our constituents. Having a background in community service or volunteer service shows a passion to service and a devotion to your community. Those who spend their own time volunteering to help others generally transition well with a community-based service like the fire department. Take advantage of opportunities to be an advocate for your community and show your desire to make things better without compensation. These types of acts can go a long way in earning the respect of your community members and members of an agency choosing you to be a part of their family. Those who look at this job as “four days and pay days” don’t belong in public service and will quickly lose respect of the members of an organization. By having volunteer and community service in your background, you will stand out as someone who will wear the badge proudly and represent the organization with a high level of respect ad transparency.
It’s important to look at the fire service as one big family. Although there many fire departments throughout the country, they all share similar traits. The adage “All fire departments are filled with the same people but with different names” is spot on. So, get out and meet people. Do ride-alongs and talk to people at your classes. Make as many acquaintances and contacts as you can; you never know when one of them may become a part of your journey. The more contacts you have the more options you will have when deciding a path. I constantly find myself reaching out to those I’ve connected with over the years. Many people have contributed to my success or my decision-making process. You can never know everything; the more people you have on your side will improve your capabilities and contributions throughout your career.
The Overall Package
Combining as much as possible and putting your best foot forward will substantially increase your chances at landing a job in the fire service. Start by refining yourself by making sure you have a solid attitude, work ethic, and self-motivation. From there, continue to build your resume by achieving a high level of education and fire service-related certifications. Gain as much experience as possible, and don’t forget to volunteer and give back to your community. Then start attacking the job by meeting as many people as possible and preparing yourself for the entry level process. Last, remember that you need to set yourself apart and stand out to the agency and its evaluators, Find a niche or specialty in this service that you have immense passion for, and excel in all aspects of that skill set. By doing all of this, you will substantially increase your odds at landing the best job in the world. Don’t give up, no matter how hard the grind. In the end, you will look back and be thankful you stayed the course.
Chad Costa is a 20-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief with the Petaluma (CA) Fire Department. He has worked in multiple organizations including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), rural and semi-rural districts, and a city. Costa is also the technology and communications battalion chief and a division group supervisor on California Interagency Team 5. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management and a certificate in homeland security.