Since leaving fire, I have spent over a decade helping people land their dream jobs. So when it comes to acing interviews, I can definitely share some wisdom. One of the biggest things that you can do is also the simplest: prepare. It seems so obvious, but taking the time to anticipate what might be asked and outlining your responses can be a huge differentiator. Many people don’t to do this. And it shows. They’ll get stumped by easy interview questions. They’ll ramble. They’ll start telling one story, then remember a better one, stop, pivot, and start telling a new story, all the while, the interviewer is shaking his or her head wondering “Where is this going?”
Also, interviewing is stressful. But it doesn’t have to be. A primary reason why people exhibit stress responses during interviews is because they fear the unknown. They’re not sure what to expect, and they’re afraid. You can minimize this fear by putting yourself in your interviewer’s shoes. If you were going to interview a candidate for a position on your crew – what would you ask? What are some important questions that you would need to hear answers to in order to feel comfortable spending the next six months with this candidate?
You would probably want to know this person’s story. Who are they? What sort of life experiences have they had in the past, and what are their future plans? The interviewer will have your resume, but there’s so much information that you haven’t shared yet. They’re going to ask questions that will fill in those gaps, so that they have a deeper understanding of who you are. So be prepared to communicate your story.
They’re also going to want to understand your commitment. Especially if you have never fought fire before. What’s motivating you to pursue this job? Are you looking for something to do for a summer, or are you looking for a career? This is going to be one of the hardest challenges you will face. Are you just unemployed and looking for a new job and chasing everything, or are you targeting this field specifically? What have you done in the months leading up to this to give you a competitive advantage?
During the winter prior to my first fire season, while I was applying for jobs, I came across a two-day training that offered S-130 & S-190 (plus ICS 100). I was a college student at the time, and I remember thinking it was a little expensive, but in hindsight, it was a great decision. Even though I would go on to receive the same training on my new crew, when I was interviewing, I was able to say that I had attended the training. It showed commitment on my part. I was serious. And I was doing everything that I could to give myself a leg-up over my competition. That helped me stand out.
Remember that old adage – “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
So take some time to review the job description. What are some the key themes that stand out? What are they asking about?
In general, there are going to be nine areas that they will potentially focus on:
- General Fit. Who are you? What’s your story. Are you a culture fit for the crew. Do you have a sense of humor. Are you interesting? Are you likable?
- Passion & Enthusiasm. What’s motivating you to do this? Are you sincere in your intent to pursue this line of work?
- Willingness to Learn. Are you excited about learning new skills? Do you have a history of continuously learning new things?
- Positive Attitude. Will you have a smile on your face on Day 13 of a hard roll? When you can’t remember the last time you showered or had a hot meal?
- Work Ethic. Will you show up every day and work hard? Do you have a history of doing this? Will your references support this?
- Integrity. In a stressful situation, can you be counted on to do the right thing – even if it is hard? Do you have a history of acting ethically and morally?
- Teaming. Are you a lone wolf or a team player? Can you put your ego aside and blend with the team to accomplish the goal of the group? Will you follow orders? Do you bring skills that complement the returning team’s skills?
- Physically Capable Can you physically do this job? Are you strong enough and tough enough to be a firefighter? What have you done in the past to prove that you possess the physical qualifications to do this job?
- Preparation. Are you someone who does their homework? Will you show up prepared on Day 1? Will you review incident action plans thoroughly? Will you ask questions to make sure you know exactly what your assignment is? What do you know about the crew you’re interviewing with? Do you know what the mission of the BLM, Forest Service, BIA, NPS, Fish & Wildlife is? Have you looked at their social media? What do you know about the crew? The role? The leadership team? What do you like about what you have learned?
So now that you have a general understanding of what they will be asking, it is time for you to begin working on your responses. We built a worksheet below to help you start thinking about your answers.
Tips For The Day of the Interview:
Prepare the Battlefield – Where are you going to take the call? Do everything in your power to minimize distractions from pets and roommates. I like to walk around, so I avoid taking interviews in my car, or other places where I feel trapped. I also like to talk with my hands, so for me, using a headset – like the free earbuds that come with iPhones, is key. The only drawback is that the microphone picks up everything. Cats meowing, other people’s conversations, car horns, the wind, etc. So be sure you’re relatively secluded when using your earbuds.
Create Interview Notes: One of the advantages of doing a phone screen is that you can have your notes out and easily accessible. So before you take the call, take some time to go through your notes. Open up your laptop – it’s ok, it’s not cheating ;-). Write some tips on post-it notes and stick them to the wall. Do whatever you feel will make you confident. The only caveat I would add would be this – don’t rely on your notes. DO NOT plan to read verbatim from your notes. I interview people for a living. I can tell 100% of the time when people are reading to me. It’s a turn-off. Don’t do it. Use your notes as sign-posts or triggers for key ideas. Don’t rely on them as scripts. Otherwise, you will sound like a robot. And robots don’t get hired.
Write out your questions. Almost every interview concludes with the interviewer giving you, the interviewee, the opportunity to ask a few parting questions before wrapping up. Don’t waste this opportunity! So many people, eager to be done with it, will simply say they have no questions. They think because they might have done their research, talked to some former wildland firefighters, or even read this book that they know everything there is to know. Trust me – Don’t do that. That’s a red flag, and it will reflect poorly on your candidacy. With a few well-thought out questions, you can demonstrate your intellectual curiosity, your passion, and your enthusiasm for the job. Here are some suggestions:
- Who are some of the best firefighters that you have worked with, and why do you respect them so much?
- What’s the most impressive display of leadership that you have seen on the fireline?
- What types of physical training do you recommend?
- As a rookie firefighter, what advice would you give me to help me succeed in my first season?
- What lessons have you learned as a firefighter?
- What are the three most important qualities you look for in a firefighter?
- Would you recommend any books or trainings that I can read or do between now and the start of the season?
- Why do you love being a firefighter? What keeps you coming back every year?
- What’s the culture of the crew like?
- Is there anyone that you suggest that I speak with prior to starting the season?
How to Structure Your Answers
The STAR Format
This is a commonly-taught framework for structuring interview responses. When I was working in the Career Management Center at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, we trained our MBA students in this technique. It works. STAR is an acronym for:
Its value lies in providing two things: First, it gives you a framework to develop your answer. This helps reduce anxiety when an interviewer asks you to describe a time when you did X. Simply start with describing the situation. Then move on to describing the tasks, then focus on the actions that you personally took, and then wrap it up by providing the results. Simple! Second, this also helps the interviewer understand your story because it is laid out in a very logical. When we tell stories, we tend to bounce around a lot, and all-too-often, critical details are lost in the shuffle. The STAR format helps prevent those important details from being overlooked.
Sample Interview Questions:
Tell me about yourself.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Why are you interested in wildland firefighting?
Why are you interested in working for this crew?
What’s the mission of this organization? How would you describe what the (Forest Service / Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc.) is supposed to do?
What sort of physical training have you been doing? What is your workout routine?
What makes you think you’ll be successful in this job?
Have you ever worked a physically intense job before?
What are some important qualities for a high performing team to have?
Have you ever had to make a difficult moral or ethical choice?
Tell me about your leadership experience.
What makes a good team member?