Fire Fighting in Canada

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The Big Interview

Interview tips and strategies for every stage of your career

May 2, 2023 
By Monique Belair and Jennifer Delaney

Reviewing the job posting and your application is a first critical step in preparing for the interview because it reaffirms that you are still interested in a position with this fire department. Photo credit: Jennifer Delaney

Your cover letter and resume have been submitted, online questionnaire completed, and the waiting begins for that eagerly anticipated phone call from the recruiter (not all departments use HR now). That one phone call instantly generates feelings of excitement, pride and anxiety all at the same time. But, are you ready for a face-to-face interview? The real work begins with laying the perfect foundation for proving why you are ideally suited for the role.

There are many key things that you can do to get ready to apply for a position, interview and do the follow up interview. They are all connected and doing the proper preparation will place you in the optimal position to demonstrate to the interview panel why you are their strongest candidate. There are some strategic differences in how to prepare for that first job compared to promotions, changing roles, or changing departments.

There are some fundamental steps required to prepare for any interview. The initial questions should be: Do I want to work at this fire department. Why do I want to work for this fire department? Is it a good fit for me? You may think that working anywhere is good, but you need to consider what your future career looks like in five, 10 and 20 years from now. Is this the fire service that will help you obtain your goals? It is important that the culture of this fire service will make you happy, is a good fit and at the same time allow you to progress in your career.

Here are the key things you should do to prepare for any interview.


Review: Review the job posting and your application. This is the first critical step in preparing for the interview because it reaffirms that you are still interested in a position with this fire service. Make sure you note any changes in your qualifications, certifications or relatable job skills you have acquired since applying so that you can review them with the interview panel. Review recent media/social media posts about the department and things that are hot topics, significant programs or news events.

Research: Research communications via public notices, social media and the town/city website. Know some things about the area: industry, tourism, special sites and activities in the community. Learn about the fire department, including the number of staff and stations, what core services they deliver in the community, call volume and the number of calls based on type. You should also know who their fire chief, deputy chief(s) and key management members are.

The more you learn about the municipality, fire department, organization and strategic plan the more informed questions you can ask during the interview. 

Know the Fire Master Plan as it speaks to the role of the fire service in that community and what their goals are. The establishing and regulating by-laws mandate council approved level of service to the community. The Municipalities Strategic Plan will outline where the city will be in five, 10 or even 15 years. Reviewing the municipality’s mission, vision and goals will assist you in determining if they align with your own career plans.

Generally, most initial interviews provide you with a very short window of time to make a great first impression. When practicing your answers, keep in mind short statements that cover the key skill you are highlighting. There will likely be a panel of people involved in the interview. Be prepared for this. Self-confidence comes from feeling well prepared, and sure of yourself and your ability to represent your best self to the interview panel.

Prepare for the interview questions by creating a list of experiences you have that demonstrate key skills: leadership, organization, teamwork, following procedures, dealing with the public, managing difficult people in emergency situations, and resolving conflict. Many interview questions have changed to align with the behavioural format: Tell me about a time when you…failed, took the lead on a project, or had difficulty with a co-worker or supervisor. Be prepared to answer why they should hire you, what you are most proud of, and what is your greatest strength and weakness. The weakness should speak to how you or someone else identified the weakness and how you have worked to overcome or manage that weakness. 

To prepare for the interview, consider asking a friend to role-play with you. Practice, practice, practice answering all kinds of questions out loud to another person. You can also practice in the mirror or video yourself. You will hone your interview skills with the visual feedback on how you look and sound when you speak. This method is more effective than just being told about the mannerism as seeing it allows you to recognize the problem and change the behaviour. 

A good way to prepare for answering behavioral interview questions is to use the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action and Result.

Remember, a good first impression in an interview is crucial to your chances for moving forward in the recruitment process. Arrive early to demonstrate your ability to be prompt, dress professionally and be respectful at all times during the interview.

Key factors to consider before applying
There are many firefighters just starting down the path of fire service recruitment. The most important thing you can do is decide what factors influence where you want to work. Will you move for a job? Does it need to be in a driveable distance from your home based on the frequency you are driving there? Many people say they will work anywhere, but we would suggest that you do some research on the department, their culture and try to meet people that work there to determine if you like what you have learned. Seniority is a key piece in the fire service, so changing departments after a few years of a full-time role may not be as easy as you think. Some departments require you to serve five years with them or you will owe them a significant fee for your recruit training. Know what is required when you apply in relation to certification, documentation, vaccination records, driver’s abstract, scanned copies of your education or first aid certificates and have these available to scan as part of your application process. Look at the requirements in recruitment postings from previous years to see what the core requirements are. This will allow you to have everything ready for when their recruitment opens, avoiding a last-minute scramble.

Prepare for your interview by creating that list of examples of key skills noted earlier; stories you have from jobs, volunteering or life experiences. Practice relaying that story concisely as generally time is limited in the first interview. Be honest but also tactful when answering questions. Stay on topic when answering questions! Remain clear and concise in your answers. As a fire chief, I (Belair), have seen many interviewees become uncomfortable with the quiet once they have sufficiently answered the question and start talking to fill the silence, often saying things that get them eliminated as a candidate. Practice answering the question and then stop talking and wait. Remain positive with your answer even if it is a question that relates to a conflict with another employee or supervisor. Tell your side of the story but avoid criticizing previous employers or supervisors. Avoid using industry acronyms when providing an example because not all of the interviewers on the panel may be familiar with that jargon.

The next step to getting ready for recruitment is looking at what the process involves. Is there a written test as the first step? Does your department policies or collective agreement speak to the promotion process? What do you need to study to prepare? Do you need to do a specific physical test? Matching your resume and cover letter with the same terms and language used in the job posting will also help you in larger recruitments that use scantron technology in their selection process of the candidates moving forward.

Once you have finished researching the area and job you are applying to, you can move to the next step and create a cover letter that matches up with what you have learned about the position. It is recommended you do this process for each cover letter. Do not send the same cover letter to each city or town. Many people forget to change the town name somewhere in the letter, and it gets sent straight to the trash pile. Your resume can remain predominantly the same, while perhaps changing your objective line to make a specific statement about that location. You may want to phrase it as “working as a ____ for the XYZ Fire Department” at the end of that objective statement at the top of your resume. Work hard to find one thing you can speak easily about in that location, whether it be the butter tart festival, a tourist location, or a family story if it is a place you live. Make it personal to show the area appeals to you and you have a connection there.

Competing for a promotion will be similar, yet also different than it was for you as a new fire service member. You understand your department and the culture already, but you may need to do some investigating on what work is involved in the rank you are competing for. Every department has a promotion policy. Sometimes it is spoken to in the collective agreement or in city/ town or fire department policies. It is important you know how the process works, the timing involved and what you will be required to do. Some departments will have their personnel write an exam on corporate and fire department policies, procedures and operational objectives. Ensure you have the requirements listed in the job and prepare for any testing. You may have both an interview and a scenario-based evaluation. Carefully review all the information shared with you about the job competition and the information you should review, the skills or abilities you may be asked to demonstrate, and how the ranking of candidates will work. Before you start the internal promotional process, reach out to your supervisor and have a conversation about expectations for the role. Speak with others that have gone through the process for guidance on how they prepared for the new role and what made them successful in the process. If available, speak with the individual leaving the position about what their responsibilities, challenges and expectations were for the role. If your department has performance reviews, look them over carefully. Identify any strengths and weaknesses, areas of accomplishments or issues you may have had to address, and did you? The interviewers will have copies of your reviews, so you need to be prepared to discuss this information.

Prepare to answer questions about departmental policies, guidelines and procedures, health and safety, corporate policies, related Standards to the position, how to manage people and the reporting structure. Be sure to have a list of relatable examples and your “tell me about a time” stories are organized and practiced. As stated above: PRACTICE…out loud! We are all very good about responding to questions in our head and thinking we sound great. Once you start practicing out loud, you realize how disjointed things may sound and how many “ums” and “ahs” are in the answer. As stated earlier, it will be beneficial to practice answering questions with another person to iron out any challenges you have. You will also need to practice answering the questions, and then stop talking and wait.

Leadership positions
Competing for a leadership role will require some of the same steps as the promotion, but with a slightly different slant: strategic thinking. In a deputy chief or chief position, you are responsible for the direction and function of the department. You need to be good at looking forward and thinking about the big picture while also monitoring the daily functions. Understand what challenges the department currently faces, such as city growth, staffing or vehicle issues, significant changes to the services provided in the community or firefighter certification, could all be things you need to be aware of. It can be challenging to delegate the work required to resolve a problem or concern, rather than just stepping in to take care of it yourself, but it is important for you to be able to build your team and speak to this. Expect that there will be an interview panel, potentially including area chiefs or deputy, to have diverse representation in the panel members. 

You will have done all the research on the community. You will also have that “story/situation” list ready to be able to respond on how you would manage various circumstances in the community or department. This could be a staffing problem, significant event, regional emergency, or a bargaining unit/union challenge. You should read as many of the council reports and minutes as you can to see the direction of big projects and the fire department overall within that city or town.  You should be very familiar with the Master Fire Plan and any strategic plans the city or town has overall or for their emergency services. Be aware of any big projects in the area and how they will affect population, housing, commuting and jobs. It would be practical to understand the industry and what they have planned in the next few years. Be prepared to explain where you see the focus of that fire department to be in the next two to five years and what you have identified as important items to try to resolve early on if you were chosen.

For any job interview you should consider carefully what life experience stories you have that will not only highlight your personality, and the skill or attribute you are trying to project. It should be something that is memorable or meaningful to you so it shows when you are talking about it. This might be a competition you were in that demonstrates a commitment to training, pushing yourself to achieve a goal or winning something. Consider a big project that you and your team worked on with a successful outcome or something you worked hard to overcome. Whatever you choose, make it more than “I trained really hard at the gym to pass my fitness test.” It is hard to determine the best way to be unique or memorable without seeming quirky, but being engaging, doing your best to connect with your interviewers, and being yourself is a solid start. Do not lie during your interview; it’s not worth it.  

Practicing answers, talking about experiences, or answering the questions you expect to be asked and recording yourself are the true keys to success. 

Closing out an interview
You want to leave the interviewers with a lasting impression, so be sure to do the following: 

  • Ask only relevant questions to the position. Don’t ask a question just for the sake of asking one.
  • Include any additional information for the interviewers that you feel may be significant in their decision to move you forward in the process that was not covered in the questions.
  • Relay to the interviewers how this interview discussion has confirmed your interest in the role with their department.
  • Be sure to conclude the interview politely and respectfully.
  • Thank the interview panel for their time with you and the invitation to compete for the position. 

Once you have had your interview, take a few minutes as soon as you are finished to make notes about what you were asked and how you answered it. Do it in a quiet place before you speak with anyone else. Reviewing this information later will help you polish your answers for the next interview, and help you identify areas you may need to practice more.

The fire service can be a large community and a small circle, all at the same time! Work to develop a good reputation and name in your department, your community, and in all the things you do. It will help you when you least expect it. Make connections with other fire service people at conferences, meetings, courses, and events — you never know when you may need feedback or information from an outside source. Start preparing now for what your next step is going to be. You never know what opportunities may arise!

Chief Monique Belair has been a Canadian Armed Forces firefighter, worked as a specialist for the OFM and was acting manager for two years. She was previously deputy chief in St. Catharines and Oakville, fire chief in Belleville and now the Fire Chief in Kingston, Ont. Belair is an advisor for the Humber College communication curriculum and on the Loyalist College pre-service program advisory committee.
Jennifer Delaney has been in the fire service for 18 years and held roles as a training officer, fire inspector, fire and life safety educator, fire investigator, firefighter (volunteer), OFC adjunct instructor, pre-service instructor and OAFTO member. 

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