Selling Yourself for the Job — Promotion in the Fire Service

by | September 11, 2023

There is no guaranteed path to success for career advancement. While some departments have a prescribed process for promotion in the fire service, others take a more fluid approach. In some areas, civil service laws dictate how promotions should be handled. Conversely, many volunteer departments use elections to decide which members will hold leadership positions. Regardless of the process used in your department, there are some things you can do to sell yourself for the job.

Know Your Department and Community

Whether you are selling widgets or applying for a promotion, you must know your client. In this case, your client is your department and the community it serves. In fact, all of the stakeholders in your organization are your clients. These can range from your peers to your officers, and even include the elected officials who govern your organization. How well do you know their wants and needs?

Take the time to learn about your department. This includes its history, its administration and its policies. To be of service to your stakeholders, you need to be able to meet their expectations. Taking the time to learn the department or community’s history may seem unimportant, but it can make your service more personal. As this happens, it will become apparent to those around you that you care about your organization and the community it protects.

Knowing about your department’s policies and administration will give you a leg up on the competition and make you a stronger firefighter in the meantime. This is something you should be doing from the very beginning and not waiting for promotion season.

Opportunities for promotion in the fire service are often due to some people leaving, and others being promoted. Are you able to forecast these changes in your department? Are you doing everything you can to attain the skills needed for the next step? The better you know your department and its people, the better off you will be when it comes to learning new skills that would otherwise walk out the door with a retiree.

Know Yourself

How well do you know yourself? A common interview question is one that relates to a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to take a serious look at your capabilities so you know where you stand. Don’t wait until a week before the promotion interview to consider this. Instead, take time to reflect on yourself and to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Not everyone can be good at everything. We all have personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. You may already know what yours are, but it serves you well to take the time to reflect on them. You may have strengths you didn’t know about. Ask your peers and your officers what they think your strengths are. While you’re at it, ask what they see as your weaknesses and be prepared to feel uncomfortable. You are opening yourself up to criticism here, but this is only the beginning. If you are successful in your quest to become a fire service leader, you will encounter criticism at many steps along the way. Asking for feedback will also show your sense of humility. The ability to handle criticism will make you more marketable for a leadership role.

Once you have a grasp on your strengths and weaknesses, you can put them to work for you. Say one of your strengths is mechanical aptitude. You can take anything apart and put it back together. You can troubleshoot malfunctioning equipment quickly and get things running in stressful situations. Use that strength to sell yourself. Look for opportunities to shine.

Maybe one of your weaknesses is public speaking. We don’t often speak in front of large groups, but company officers need to be adept at speaking to their firefighters en masse. This is important for training and for communicating your expectations and orders. If you find yourself lacking here, you might want to take a class in public speaking. This isn’t limited to the local college or university. There are groups and clubs that help you develop your public speaking skills. If they have a club in your area, Toastmasters International can provide you with opportunities to hone your public speaking, communication and leadership skills.

Higher Education

If you intend to become an officer, pursuing higher education is one of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for promotion in the fire service. Many local colleges and universities offer degrees in fire protection, public safety and the like. You may want to begin at a community college and earn your associate degree before moving on to attain your bachelor’s. Many universities offer “2+2” programs to easily transition from a community college. Also, some schools offer credits for vocational training you have already received and many fire service courses are worth college credit.

Officers must be willing to do the right thing, even when it’s not the popular choice. Be (or become) that kind of leader and your chances of advancement go way up.

Professional Training

There are myriad classes you can take to make yourself more marketable for promotion or appointment to a leadership position. Many of these classes are offered by local, regional and state training academies. Courses at the National Fire Academy are also offered free of charge to firefighters in the United States.

If you are interested in leadership opportunities, focus on classes like Introduction to Fire Officer and Fire Officer level I. If you have the opportunity to obtain a national certification in one of these courses, do it. These certifications give you enhanced credibility and make you more marketable throughout the country.

Don’t limit yourself just to classes that have “officer” or “leadership” in the title or course description. Being a leader doesn’t come from formal training but from immersive life experiences. Sometimes people focus so much on leadership training that they fall short on the core skills of fire protection. Don’t assume that your initial training or company drills are sufficient to build the necessary skills to become a fire service leader. There is always more to learn about engine and truck company operations. There are many opportunities for training in rescue or hazardous materials operations. As a rule, if you see an opportunity to get trained on something new, go for it!

Other Training and Experience

While fire service training can prove invaluable for aspiring leaders, do not limit yourself to this. Opportunities to broaden your perspective and life experience are limitless. This side of professional development can be more personal in nature. For example, you might join a civic group or participate in community-based programs that open you up to new ideas and different groups of people.

This can have lasting effects as it will teach you to work with others from different backgrounds and in environments outside of fire stations. There are opportunities to work with service organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Clubs. Being able to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and under a broad range of circumstances is a skill that firefighters often overlook.

Know Your Competition

This can be a touchy subject. When you’re preparing for advancement, it’s important to focus on yourself rather than competition. There is nothing you can do about someone else’s abilities, qualifications or background. If you are up against strong performers, then you too should be performing at the top of your game. If there is something that you can improve about yourself, make it happen before you are up for promotion.

Author Steven Aitchison said, “Never blow out someone else’s candle to try and make your one shine brighter.” It is important to note that while blowing out somebody else’s candle may make yours seem brighter at first, it will only serve to darken the rest of the room. Don’t make a spectacle of your competition’s weaknesses or shortcomings. This is not a leadership attribute and doing so would reflect poorly on you. In fact, if it doesn’t work against you with attaining a promotion, it will surely work against you with earning the respect of your crew.

A true leader amplifies the strengths of others instead of diminishing them. A strong candidate does not need to point out the shortcomings of others, and doing so will reflect poorly on you.

Be Consistent and Sincere

Some people change their demeanor, their focus, and their overall performance based on whether or not they are up for promotion. If you are looking for a sure-fire way to lose an opportunity, this is it. This “seasonal” approach shows insincerity, selfishness, and lack of self-awareness. None of those are the attributes of a leader. It is easy to spot the people who change with the tides.

Instead, do everything you can to remain consistent. Consistency exhibits your stability and stability is a fundamental concept in leadership. When situations turn challenging, people need a stable leader.

Sincerity breeds trust. Most people are perceptive and can sense when you are genuine. Being sincere does not mean telling people what they want to hear. In fact, sometimes it is the opposite. A fire chief looking for candidates for officer positions will look for sincerity because sincerity and integrity are closely related. Integrity is a standalone value that leaders must possess. Officers must be willing to do the right thing, even when it’s not the popular choice. Be (or become) that kind of leader and your chances of advancement go way up.


Firefighters often think that the best road to promotion in the fire service is through formal training and education, but one of the best things you can do as you gain experience in the fire service is to share that experience. You do not need to be part of a formal program to be a mentor.

There is a lot of down time in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments, and you can take this time to pass your knowledge along to the newer members of your team. The simple task of going over equipment or discussing tactics will serve both of you. You will be reinforcing your own knowledge while you pass it along. Our new members usually have an appetite for knowledge and are eager to learn. Be part of their journey. In addition to teaching them, you might become known for it. If you are in a department that promotes or assigns officers based on their merits, this can serve to benefit you immensely.


Regardless of the training you participate in or the groups you associate with, take those opportunities to network with peers who share your aspirations and with leaders you would like to emulate. Connecting with these people is not about calling in favors but is about broadening your perspective, keeping yourself informed, and forging professional relationships. These relationships may lead you to opportunities that you would have otherwise never heard about.

Another thing you can do is become a member of a professional association. There are several organizations you can join to broaden your perspective and connect with fire service leaders. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has memberships for less than $80 per year. These memberships grant access to several career development tools including training, professional forums, and other information. Many states have firefighter and fire officer associations that exist with the purpose of developing leaders and forging professional relationships. Non-profit organizations like the Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society (FOOLS) exist to preserve fire service traditions, develop and foster fire service relationships, and train firefighters to stay safe. You may be interested in a fire service motorcycle club or sports league. All of these are opportunities to network with others and to improve your value in the promotion process and beyond.

Close the Deal

The interview process varies from agency to agency. In smaller departments, your interview may be an ongoing and informal process. Other departments may have a formal interview and evaluation process and include a panel of fire officers from outside of your organization. Either way, this is where you close the deal.

The interview gives you the opportunity to give your elevator pitch and show the evaluators what you are about. You are limited on time and context, so take the time to prepare for this ahead of time. You need to set yourself apart from your competition. Tell them what you bring to the table and how those attributes can benefit the organization. It may feel uncomfortable but don’t be shy about talking yourself up. For some people on the interview panel, this may be the only face-to-face interaction they will have with you. Make sure you leave an impression.

Pursuing a promotion within the fire service can be complicated. There are many traps and mistakes to be aware of and avoid. But if you work diligently to prepare and improve yourself beforehand, you can get the advancement opportunity you want and deserve.

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