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Firefighter Hiring Process: What You Need to Know


Hiring firefighters can be tricky and, if done incorrectly, can expose your local government to lawsuits. Public safety expert Leonard Matarese gives advice on how to proceed.

If your community is in need of new firefighters, you may have some questions on an appropriate hiring process. Some of these questions may include: what techniques and criteria do you use for selecting an applicant to move forward in the hiring process? For example, if you have over 600 applications and 10 openings, do you invite all 600 to test for the position or not? If not, what screening technique should be used at this initial phase and throughout? And how do you establish a pool of applicants to choose from when you have other position to fill later? Do you rank your pool of candidates based on scoring or are they placed on an eligibility list?

Leonrard Matarese, director of Research and Public Safety Programs for the ICMA Center for Public Safety Management, and a nationally recognized public safety expert, recently answered these questions in a discussion on the Knowledge Network. Here is an excerpt of his response:

“Firefighter employment testing is a particularly sensitive area, currently subject to numerous lawsuits throughout the country. Although the Supreme Court ruled on the Ricci v. Stefano (2009) case in New Haven, Connecticut, it left open numerous questions on firefighter testing that are now working their way through the lower courts.

“To begin with, what physical testing are you doing? Has the test been validated? This is especially important since physical testing often produces disparate results and these can be challenged. This places the city in the position where it will need to prove the validity of the tests. If you are using a locally developed test it would be better to think about the use of a nationally recognized, validated test such as the CPAT (Candidate Physical Ability Test) used throughout the country. Using this test requires specific equipment and trained testers – all part of the important validation process.

“Once you have identified the test to use, do you provide for a “practice” session to insure that all candidates are familiar with the test before taking it? If not, and some candidates have had access to the test (perhaps through a friend or relative on the department), you are again exposed to potential litigation.

“What exactly constitutes the scoring system? Is the physical test a pass/fail or does the candidate get a score? If scored, is it combined with the written exam score to produce a final score? Combining scores is sometimes used to address the disparate results that can be created by pass/fail.

“What exactly constitutes the oral board? Is it a structured interview process with scoring? If scored, is that added into the final score to create a list or is it simply pass/fail. Are the questions relevant and valid and defensible?

“If you give a physical exam (which of course you should) it can only be required after a ‘conditional offer of employment’ is made. The same is true of a psychological examination. I am constantly amazed at how few departments do psychological testing for firefighter / paramedics. It what can be a very high-stress job, clearly this should be done.

“Finally what about background exams? I often see cities that do excellent background exams on police applicants but none on firefighters. Yet, firefighters have access to people’s homes routinely.

“In summary, this is tricky stuff and you should consult an attorney familiar with testing law before beginning any testing process.”

To read the entire Knowledge Network discussion, click here.

For more information about the ICMA Center for Public Safety Management, click here.

For more information about an upcoming ICMA University workshop led by Leonard Matarese, click here.

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