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Assessment Centers for Officer Promotions

February 15, 2010

Your palms begin to sweat as you sit in the witness stand and the plaintiff’s attorney sizes you up. The icy glares of the jurors only add to your nervousness and you find yourself shifting slightly in your seat. "Chief," the attorney says with a sly smile, "knowing that Captain Baker was in charge at the time the accident occurred which injured my client, could you please tell the court just how it was that Captain Baker obtained the rank which placed him in command on that fateful day?"

Your mouth goes dry and you can taste your Adam’s apple. Trying not to look too nervous, you clear your throat and begin. "Well, you see we, the other chief officers and me, we get together and select the appointments for company officer and Baker got appointed this time around."

"A group selection, huh? Like a popularity contest, perhaps?" The attorney breaks into a grin from ear to ear as he turns toward the jury and a little voice in the back of your head tells you it’s all over...

Could that be you in the witness chair? Let’s hope not, but the truth is that thousands of fire officers across the United States in both career and volunteer positions have absolutely nothing to prove their credibility. Many others believe their years on the force or a pile of certifications can support their ability to perform. Such may not be the case.

If you use subjective selection as your means of appointing company officers, you could find that a jury doesn’t hold the same high regard for an individual that you or your fellow officers held when the selection took place. The same may hold true of appointments made after only interviews with the chief or reviews of the applicants’ personnel files.

There is a better way, and it’s not just for the big departments anymore. Even small departments, career or volunteer, can consider using an assessment-center process for selecting officers.

The whole concept behind an assessment-center process is to objectively evaluate the performance of promotion applicants within the context of the actual activities they’ll perform in the job. By doing so, you can show not only that they have the education and experience deemed necessary for the job, but also that they posses the ability to put that education and experience into practice.

Certainly, the decision to use an assessment center should consist of more than just reading this article, but let me at least give you a taste of what’s involved.

The first step in any assessment-center process is making certain you have developed a clear and complete, up-to-date job description. It must provide precise job anchors—those elements of the position essential to effective performance. It’s those job anchors that become the behavioral criteria the applicants will be measured against.

The actual assessment center used to create the work environment is limited only by imagination. The critical factor is that every behavioral element on which the applicants are evaluated must be directly tied to a specific anchor in the job description.

Likewise, a quality assessment center should try to find a way to cause the candidates to perform as many of the job anchors as possible under simulated working conditions. For example:

  • Applicants’ proficiency at administrative skills might be measured by having them perform such real-life tasks as composing a memo to the chief, prioritizing and delegating items from their in box or writing a performance evaluation.
  • Skills on the emergency scene can be measured in a tactical simulation, even if it’s just computer simulated, with some time constraints thrown in to create the needed stress.
  • Several candidates can be placed together in a group and provided a problem to solve so you can evaluate their ability to work in a committee setting.
  • Supervisory abilities may be observed by putting them in an uncomfortable role-play situation, with a trained facilitator playing the part of an imaginary smart-mouthed subordinate who’s committed some policy infraction.

A job analysis of relevant behaviors must be conducted to determine the dimensions, attributes, characteristics, qualities, skills, abilities, motivation, knowledge or tasks necessary for effective job performance and to identify what to evaluate.

Behavioral observations must be classified into meaningful, relevant categories: dimensions, attributes, characteristics, and aptitudes. Classifying the overall performance of a candidate in an exercise simply as poor, good or excellent is insufficient.

The techniques must be designed to provide information for evaluating the dimensions determined by job analysis. One of the best approaches is to use simulated on-the-job tasks to provide this correlation.

Multiple assessment techniques must be used, tapping a variety of behavior and information relevant to the identified dimensions.

The techniques must include sufficient job-related simulations to allow opportunities to observe the candidate’s behavior for each dimension. ESCI typically provides four phases during a fire-officer assessment, with some phases containing more than one exercise.

Multiple assessors must be used for each candidate. Assessors must receive thorough training and demonstrate competency. A systematic procedure must be used to accurately record specific behavioral observations. Assessors must prepare a record of observations made in each exercise to prepare for the integration discussion.

Integration of behavior must be based on a pooling of information from assessors and techniques. That is, the assessors must discuss their individual observations and together come to a pooled consensus about behavioral scoring for each applicant.

While assessment centers have grown in popularity over the last decade, it’s important to know that the term has been applied loosely to many processes that lack in quality, objectivity and sometimes integrity.

In an effort to establish recognized criteria for assessment center processes, the International Congress on the Assessment Center Method established a task force to create guidelines on the proper development and application of assessment centers. Fire chiefs would be wise to make certain the assessment center they use fits these guidelines in order to ensure it stands up to scrutiny during a contested promotion.

In addition to the required elements, the International Congress on the Assessment Center Method provided additional guidelines for use of the data generated by an assessment center. Perhaps most important among these guidelines is the provision of candidate feedback.

The guidelines specifically recommend that each candidate receive feedback on their individual performance in the process and be informed of any recommendations made. ESCI accomplishes candidate feedback by providing to each individual candidate not only a thorough scoring analysis of their performance, but also a collection of assessor comments, feedback and recommendations from each and every exercise.

This candidate feedback may be one of the most valuable components of a quality assessment center. It’s the only component that provides something of significant value to every candidate, whether they’re promoted or not. The candidate feedback becomes a valuable tool for an individual to improve their performance, not only for future promotional processes, but for everyday life on the job as well. Through the years, we’ve received overwhelmingly positive response from promotional candidates to the honest and frank comments provided by the assessors.

I’m convinced that if you properly use a quality assessment center to select officers, you’ll find the process to be exciting and enlightening and it will give both you and the applicants a new sense of pride in the position you’re filling. After all, it means more to earn a position through superior performance in an objectively competitive process than to achieve it by default, pure seniority or a popularity contest.

Phil Kouwe is senior vice president of Emergency Services Consulting International, the IAFC’s for-profit consulting firm.

An earlier version of this article was published in Florida Fire Service, produced by the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association.