Joshua Olson is used to spending long days at work.
As a member of the Minot Fire Department, Olson and his fellow firefighters work 48 hours on shift, then have 96 hours off duty. But March 21 was a different kind of a long day.
On that day, Olson and 17 other firefighters spent the day testing for three open captain positions in the department. The three positions will be necessary when Fire Station 5 opens for service later this year.
The candidates took part in four distinct assessments that day: Situational awareness, inbox/outbox training, tactical training, and a formal interview with a panel that included Chief Kelli Kronschnabel. The candidates had also previously completed a written assignment, composing an essay up to 2,000 words on one of four topics.
“There’s a lot more to being a captain than just leading a crew on a truck at an emergency scene,” Battalion Chief Jason Babinchak said. “There’s public relations, keeping crew life in order at the station, mentoring younger firefighters while assisting your battalion chief with day-to-day operations.”
Candidates must be senior firefighters with the City of Minot for at least four years to test for captain. Of the 26 eligible firefighters, 18 tested this time.
“You have different responsibilities when you become a captain,” Babinchak said. “You have to be able to communicate effectively with people in writing or in person. You may have to speak with the city manager or members of the City Council, so you have to be prepared for duties other than fighting a fire.”
“Actual structural firefighting is a small part of what we do,” said Babinchak, noting the department responded to 4,619 total calls in 2022. “We average around 30 structure fires a year, but we also respond to more than 3,000 medical calls and all sorts of other incidents. We have to be prepared for a wide range of situations, and that’s what this testing is meant to accomplish.”
For Olson on March 21, his official day started at 8:30 a.m. with an interview with Kronschnabel and two other members of an interview panel. From there, Olson moved to tactical training at 10:30 a.m. and inbox/outbox assessment at 1 p.m., before finishing his day with the situational awareness assessment at 3:30 p.m.
“My approach for this whole process has been to rely on the training I’ve received for the past five years,” said Olson, who was testing for captain for the first time. “The last couple of years we’ve focused on officer development in preparation for this. We also ran a mock assessment center last year so the candidates weren’t blindsided with today’s process.”
In the tactical assessment, candidates were presented with four different scenarios, including a house fire, an apartment building fire, an incident where a pickup crashed into a multi-family building, and a small plane crash with fire at the Minot International Airport. For each scenario, candidates were graded on how they directed the department’s response to the incidents.
“For me, the tactical situations are probably the most daunting. You get an on-scene report of stuff that we don’t necessarily see every day and you’re in charge of the scenario,” said Olson. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking. You think you’re prepared, but you’ve got a lot of battalion chiefs watching you doing the scenarios. It can be kind of intimidating.”
Each tactical testing scenario is purposely designed to evaluate a candidate’s ability to quickly assess a situation and direct crews on scene.
“There’s an old saying in the fire service: How the first line goes is how the fire goes,” Babinchak said. “In other words, if you start well on the scene of an incident, it’s an easier transition when the battalion chief or someone else takes over the scene. But it has to start the appropriate way. That’s what we’re testing.”
As part of the situational awareness section, candidates were presented with three scenarios, and had to respond appropriately while role-playing with another person. The scenarios included being a new captain dealing with a fellow firefighter who was belittling them in front of the crew, responding to someone in a restaurant who was critical of a crew for wasting time and taxpayer money when they stopped to pick up food during a busy shift, and assuring an angry homeowner that firefighters did everything they could to save pets that perished in a fire.
In each scenario, the candidate had to take charge of the discussion, while remaining professional and courteous, especially when dealing with members of the public. Fire Inspector Stuart Hammer played the role of a disgruntled employee, an angry pet owner, and a critical resident for the three scenarios.
“These are all things that have happened to us or other fire departments or things that reasonably could happen at any given time,” Babinchak said. “They’re put together to challenge the candidates and make them think, but all of these things can happen and do happen.”
Senior Firefighters Tully Garberg and Will DeCoteau said they tried to incorporate their previous testing experience into this assessment.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve done this a few times, so I have some resources and references to draw from,” Garberg said. “I usually spend some time each day studying those past questions and looking back on my experiences. Situational awareness is probably one of the hardest ones because they can throw anything at you.”
For the inbox/outbox assessment, candidates are given 10 pieces of information and must decide how to prioritize the tasks and decide who should respond to the messages.
“The inbox/outbox is set up to be a very overwhelming day of tasks,” Garberg explained. “You have to give the tasks out in the proper order of priority according to our mission and it’s also important to delegate them to the right person when necessary.”
DeCoteau said the wide variety of testing scenarios means the candidates must spend extensive amounts of time preparing for the testing day.
“Every day I work, I try to do my job a little bit better. I continue to study our policies and follow the good leaders we have already,” he said. “There are a lot of different elements to the testing, so that means you have to practice for all of them. I try to draw on my previous experience to make good decisions.”
The full day of assessments is meant to test the candidates on skills that translate into the leadership necessary to being a captain.
“When you show up on scene, everyone is looking at you to make decisions until a battalion chief or a higher ranking captain arrives on scene,” Babinchak said. “What do you want the crews on scene to do? What do you want incoming crews to do? Everyone is waiting for you to make decisions, and you have to do it quickly. You have to be confident and be in command.”