By James T. Tornabene
Employee turnover is a problem for many departments, often complicated by increasing budget constraints. Most departments now are involved in EMS to some degree and are training their firefighters to be paramedics in addition to many other response roles.
If we consider the fit of an applicant for the job in our department as a pie, 50% of that pie can be predicted by intelligence or general cognitive ability. This is what civil service test attempts to measure. A minimum level of intelligence is necessary to be successful at the job and extra intelligence beyond that minimum predicts more success up to a point, but an applicant that scores a 100 on the test may not be more successful than an applicant that scores a 95, but will probably be more successful than an applicant that scores a 76. We can send applicants to local colleges to take placement tests to determine if they meet the minimum standards to get into a paramedic class however other measures and test, such as general cognitive ability may be necessary.
After a pass/fail physical agility test, which eats another 10% of the pie, what is left is explained by an applicant’s personality. Also, can they work on a team? Do they require a great deal of supervision? Can they enter a burning building? Can they finish a paramedic class? The fire service attempts to measure this with interviews, job previews, and sometimes psychological test, but there is nothing available specific to the fire service to predict an applicant’s success.
My study is attempting to change this. Psychologist testing firefighters started as early as 1917 when Lewis Terman gave intelligence and other tests San Jose (Calif.) firefighters. More recently, in 1990 Jeff Mitchel came up with the concept of a rescue personality type that he believed was shared by all first responders that required a specially trained counselor to deal with their unique types of stress. His critics were unable to find any empirical evidence of a rescue personality. They looked at all firefighters, or all first responders for similarities of a rescue personality. But as fire chiefs we know that not everyone applies to be a firefighter to help people. It is possible that people who have a need to help people are likely to have a rescue personality? I am currently working on research to examine differences among firefighters that may indicate this personality. If the existence of a rescuer personality can be empirically demonstrated and measured, tests can be developed which might allow fire chiefs to identify which candidates are most likely to be successful as firefighters.
Any recruitment and selection process contains a certain degree of error. We sometimes hire people that we should not hire (false positives) and sometimes fail to hire some that we should hire (false negatives). A good selection process should reduce false positives and false negatives. There is no perfect selection process. Even the Navy SEALS with a six-month screening process still have some false positives.
In the Rescuer Personality Scale (RPS) I am examining the relationship between applicant’s responses to questions relating to their desire to help people. Some questions seem obvious, while others are less easily understood. Such questions may be necessary to prevent applicants from giving answers that they believe to be correct of more socially desirable.
You are invited to participate in this research. Take the survey and share with your firefighters.
James T. Tornabene is a former fire chief for Ruston, La., with more than 20 years experience as a firefighter/paramedic and four years of experience as a tactical medic. He currently is a doctoral candidate in industrial/organizational psychology from Louisiana Tech University.