Hiring Good Character First


Hiring good people: It’s easier said than done. This being the case, why do we make it more difficult on ourselves in some instances?

Furthermore, the great plague of recruitment and retention in the volunteer fire service now is affecting the career side of the coin. Departments have needed to adapt before the snowball effect of continually mandating new hires and pushing them out the door grows too large.

Before all qualifications, we should scrutinize the most important aspect of hiring in the fire service: character. Is the individual disciplined? Is the person humble? Does the individual have good morals and so on?

True, I might be writing to a more specific audience of departments—ones that are similar in size and makeup to the one that I am a part of—but the matter of why we should hire character over qualifications, such as a paramedic license, fire certifications or a college degree, is a conversation that much occur. My department has had some successes with changing how it hires, and those successes reinforce why the fire service should invest in good character, because it pays dividends in the long run.

Cadet programs, part-time staff & ride-alongs

How do you evaluate character through, maybe, one, two or three formal interviews? The answer: You do, and you don’t, but here are some ideas of how to increase the likelihood that an applicant’s character will emerge through interview evaluations.

If your department doesn’t have a cadet/explorer program, I highly encourage you to start one. There’s no better way to evaluate character and to mold individuals to be a future valuable teammate on your department than by starting the evaluation before they are 18 years old.

My department recently hired two cadets who were going through paramedic school, because they exhibited great character during the years that they were in the cadet/explorer program. In years past, my department would have hired two paramedics instead—if we could find them.

A huge advantage of a cadet program is the evaluation of local kids who have roots in the community, know the community and are very likely to stay with the department for a 20–30-year career. This is instead of hiring five other candidates—who very well might have more certifications—over that time period.

If you are a combination department, as my department is, you have another avenue to evaluate the character of possible candidates: You easily can evaluate work ethic, humility and discipline of part-time staff who you might want to invest in further as career members.

Finally, encourage ride-along time for applicants and potential applicants. The more eyes and ears that see and listen to an applicant, the better. Afterward, listen to your staff and line members insofar as their judgement of applicants’ character. Every minute at the firehouse is an on-the-job interview.

It’s rather easy for my department, as an organization, to know within a 12-hour ride-along period whether we want to work with an applicant.

What if an applicant doesn’t want to or can’t do a ride-along? Make it a part of the hiring process. My department recently conducted interviews of nonparamedics, and to evaluate their character better—and to get a better idea of whether we want to invest more training and money—the top interviewees are being scheduled to conduct a ride-along shift.

The new generation of applicants

Why invest in good character over, say, a fire certification or a paramedic license, which would allow an applicant to start working at full speed for the organization immediately? Let me pose a couple follow-up questions: How many times does line staff say that newcomers must be taught the real world right away? How often do individuals who have book smarts but no common sense pass a class?

There’s no better way to mold individuals than to have them work full time on the job to help things “click” in school. Furthermore, they won’t be a robot coming out of school for whom it will require six months or longer to undo the Rubik’s Cube that is the difference between school and the job.

The days of hundreds, let alone thousands, of applicants beating down your door for the “greatest job in the world” aren’t over, but they certainly are in a pause phase. Admittedly, the aforementioned ideas aren’t one-size-fits-all nor are they new, but the fire service must grow and improve on communicating with the new generations of applicants and potential applicants. Start communicating with them, so you can start evaluating their character.

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