Let Character Be the Standard

The fire service, without a doubt, provides excellent fire and emergency service education. More often than not, department personnel go through hours of dedicated training to perfect the operational skills they need to perform properly during a call. A new member can easily find training that will lead them from firefighter to company officer to chief.

But one thing a department is usually unable to impart is each individual’s solid sense of character.

Character is defined by Merriam-Webster as a complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person, group or nation.

In short, this means consistently making morally right choices over wrong ones.

For most people, their parents have instilled certain values in them by the time they’re a young adult. These ethical standards play a big role in how they carry themselves and how they portray their reputations to society.

This becomes important to department leadership when a member doesn’t demonstrate a high moral character, especially during calls or while representing the department. And while people can change their character for the better, it’s hard and may not be feasible within your department, depending on what types of resources you can offer.

We have many mechanisms to teach and accredit fire and emergency service training. Recruits are tested on their physical ability in academy or on the fireground with an officer and in classrooms based on reading assignments. But how are we, as fire service leaders, testing their character?

Considering Your Candidate

Before any potential candidates are offered membership, background checks should be conducted. Detailed, reliable background checks can be performed online and may be returned within 48 hours, depending on which vendor you use. This is money well spent, as it will detail all interactions with law enforcement, including arrests and not just convictions.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that not everything will be detailed in this report, and you should take additional measures before the interviewing phase.

Check all forms of social media. Look for pictures, posts and “likes” that would reflect poorly on your department. So much information is put online these days; while it may seem overwhelming to look into each applicant’s social-media history, think about forming a confidential committee that could divide up the work and comb through any issues one person alone may miss.

Contacting your applicants’ references should mirror your pursuit to understand their character. Ask about their abilities to work as team players and whether they’re considered trustworthy. While most candidate-provided references will speak highly of that person, there are clues, such as long pauses or laughter, that can signal issues in these areas. An honest answer generally comes quickly.

Conducting Your Interview

The interview process can look at past training and experience, but it should focus on character. Look for people who exemplify what your department stands for: teamwork, dedication, accountability and empathy for others. Ask:

  • What is your best attribute?
  • What is your worst attribute?
  • How would your friends or colleagues describe you?

Ask them for examples and look for answers that may be applicable to your department.

The internet is another great resource for interview questions. Find questions you’re comfortable asking and where the answers can reveal what you’re looking for. Remember, confidence is good and is generally accepted in our line of work, but cockiness shows a lack of respect and moral character.

Membership and Beyond

Don’t expect perfection from your new recruits or from well-seasoned members either. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how your members handle these mistakes that determine if they’ll remain a good fit with your department. Additionally, make sure to factor the time that has passed and the consistency of mistakes before handling a situation too aggressively.

Often, departments advance people simply because they have taken more classes. While this shows dedication and tactical knowledge, advancements should also be based on a person’s character. Knowing how to treat people with respect is an important trait and one that’s much harder to teach than operational skills.

Mentorship can play a significant role in developing future officers in your department. Partner young recruits with older, trustworthy counterparts to create a learning environment and accountability for both parties’ actions. This may be the biggest opportunity to create dependable, respectful members in your department.

Unless your department is built on people with character, is it a department you can be proud of?

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