Monday, December 22, 2008

The Interview

This week was when I took my first significant step towards joining the local fire department. At the advice of my younger brother (already a long-term member) and of another good friend who works at the same station as my brother, I filled out an application and arrived at the District Office to interview for a position in the next recruit class.

Having been through a lot of job interviews in the last 3-4 years, I can tell you first hand that this was not at all the same. Walking through the front door, I felt my heart start beating a little faster and I could feel my hands trembling a bit. I was actually NERVOUS. This might not seem like a big deal to people who don't like being interviewed, but I've never really had a problem with it. I did a lot of stage work in high school, and was a music performance major in college, so I've never really had any nervousness about being up in front of people. The difference in this case, I guess, is that there was no alternative. Every job interview I've been to for my software career has been along the lines of "I know I'm good enough for this job, and even if they don't see it there are plenty of other companies who will". This was closer to "I have no experience as a firefighter, and I only get one shot at this because there aren't any other alternate volunteer districts I can join if I blow it".

I forced myself to breathe more slowly as the woman at the front desk called to the unnamed individuals in the back of the office that I would be meeting shortly, telling them that I had arrived. Did I dress correctly? Should I have cut my hair before coming in? Maybe it would have made a better first impression...

From the woman's hand signs as she smiled back at me, I could tell that I would have a few minutes to wait before the training chief could see me. "Great" I thought, "Icing the kicker". Feigning nonchalance, I stood up (trying to shake off my nerves) and started perusing the various photographs of firemen in action lining the walls of the lobby, wondering if I might spot my brother among them. No luck, though; before I could finish my search, the door to the back office opened, and a man a few years my senior asked if I was ready. Nodding my assent, I gathered my coat from where I'd been sitting and followed him back to a briefing/training room that had one man sitting behind a table who introduced himself as Chief Leake. I gave him a handshake as firm as I dared, and sat down across from him while the young man who had walked me in took a seat immediately at the Chief's right hand.

They both smiled pleasantly and opened up with the standard preliminaries: "Tell us about yourself", "where are you originally from?", "Are you prepared to work hard?" etc. The only question really worth mentioning here was the one when they asked me why I wanted to be a firefighter. Now THAT one I was prepared for.

You see, this "quest" began for me last February (almost a year ago now). I was the single witness to a bad car accident on a highway near my home. While driving home from work for lunch, a van swerved in front of me, and then off the side of the highway at around 70 MPH, down a steep ravine, over a creek, and into a patch of trees on the other side, no brake lights the whole time. I stopped my car at the side of the road, jumped out, and started scrambling down the steep hill using one hand for balance while trying to dial 911 with the other. As I reached the mangled vehicle and rounded the passenger side window, I saw something that has been burned in my memory for a while. The driver, a middle-aged woman, half-ejected from the van through the passenger window, arms and head drooping down the side of the car and blood running down her arms and dripping off her fingertips into the grass. I just stood there and stared blankly for the few minutes it took the emergency workers to arrive. Afterwards, driving home in my car, I remember wishing that I had been my younger brother in that moment; someone who had the training and the experience to know what to do for someone in a position like that. Instead I was just me, joe software developer, totally unprepared and feeling helpless in the face of a real emergency.

I don't want to feel that way ever again.

This answer seemed to be acceptable to my interviewers, and they began telling me about the commitment I'd be signing up for if I was selected for the department and decided to go forward with it. Long training hours (evenings and weekends), hard work, some disappointments (you can't save everyone, you know). Would I be able to stick with that sort of commitment? Would the benefits that come from that sort of experience outweigh the emotional costs?

Honestly, I couldn't say whether the balance would be favorable. I believe so, and from what I've seen in the lives of my brother and of my friend I could even say I have evidence of it. But I've never been there, and I won't claim knowledge of that which I haven't experienced. I've never been there with a kid who came home to find one of his parents had committed suicide. I've never seen new parents lose their infant child. I can't speak for whether the camaraderie and gratification I'd receive from being on a team like that and saving peoples lives can make up for the ones that you can't help. One thing I could say without fear of being wrong is that I would stick with it, and that every cent they invested in my training (which would be expensive) they would get paid back double in commitment and service. That's the best answer I could offer.

We talked about my family. Would my wife be ok with me leaving family functions if a call came in? We talked about logistics. Would I have the time to sit around a fire-station to be there while all the residents had somewhere else to be? We talked about all kinds of things, and most of what I can remember points towards me getting by the speech part of the interview OK. All I had to do then was dress down to my gym shorts and t-shirt and prove that I was in good enough physical condition to handle the job.

Chief Leake gave me a firm handshake and a smile as I left for the physical training area, telling me that he would make his recommendation to the executive board and that I'd be hearing about my selection status in the next couple weeks. Following the younger man again, I listened as he explained the tasks I was going to have to accomplish in order to show that I was in decent physical condition. None of them sounded too daunting, but I didn't want to get to optimistic before I'd even seen the course.

The training area was in the back of what looked like a storage warehouse. Smooth concrete floors, with big towers of shelving holding all manner of emergency gear. I didn't have time to persue them, though, as I was led to the back of the area where a single flight of stairs had been constructed in the middle of the floor, leading up to nowhere.

"Up and down 10 times in 2 minutes" where the instructions for this obstacle. I didn't think that would be a problem, but I didn't want to cut it too close either; no sense in leaving too much room for error in case I fell and needed a precious few extra seconds. I stretched a bit while the rest of the rules were being explained to me. One foot on each step, no skipping. No prizes for finishing faster than 2 minutes, and he would be calling out the time left for me at 30 second intervals. Nodding that I was ready, I stepped up to the starting line and at a word from the interviewer I powered up the stairs as fast as my legs would carry me, not knowing what kind of pace I would need to make it and trying to err conservatively on the side of finishing early. As I reached the top I spun on the ball of my foot and immediately began pseudo-falling down the stairs, just using a toe-touch on each step to slow my descent. After five repetitions of this exercise, I thought that surely the man in the room with me had forgotten his commitment to keep me informed of the time remaining. After all, I was half-way done and hadn't heard a word out of him. I was wrong.

6 steps into my sixth rep I heard the words "30 seconds" come from behind me. Inwardly I cursed. He hadn't forgotten anything, I was just being a fool as I burned out all my energy at a pace that was twice as fast as necessary. My lungs were burning a bit as I tried to slow my gait a little, but I was into such a rhythm at that point that it was more comfortable to just keep going than to try and figure out how much a 50% adjustment to speed would be. Finishing in around 1:10, I tried to slow my breathing so that it wouldn't be apparent how hard I had been working. The interviewer asked me to sit down in a chair to let my heart rate come down, and offered me a bottle of water that I gratefully accepted while trying not to seem too desperate for it.

After a couple minutes, I was given a fireman mask and told to put it on and tighten it around my head. Once it was on, I would not be allowed to remove it for the remainder of the obstacle course, which would show whether I had any amount of claustrophobia that would be problematic to working in full fire gear. Placing the mask over my face and pulling the straps tight, I tested my breath a few times to make sure I could still breathe ok. It wasn't as refreshing as open air, pulling through the filters on the front, but I'd make do. Turning away from the stairs, the young man showed me a life-size dummy that had a long strap wrapped under his armpits. Indicating some orange traffic cones set up at intervals along the concrete floor, he asked me to grab the strap and drag the dummy backwards in a figure-8 through the cones. Nothing too physically taxing, really. They dummy wasn't too heavy, and the floor was smooth with low frictional coefficients. The real problem was that the mask restricted my field of vision to the sides, somewhat, so I had trouble knowing whether or not I had come to a traffic cone or not. The exercise was not timed, but I didn't think that going super-slow would help my score any either, so I began getting into the habit of frequently turning my head from side-to-side to get a complete field of view as I moved. This sped up my progress significantly, and I brought the dummy back without incident, although I could still feel my legs burning a little from my unnecessarily speedy domination of the staircase.

The same process was then repeated with a fire-hose I had to drag over my shoulder, and a weighted ladder I had to carry. Both were uneventful, as I had now gotten comfortable with the veritable blinders on the sides of my head. The next event of significance was a test of strength. Given three scenarios: a rope over a pulley with a weight on the other side, a weighted and suspended pole that could be pulled from chin to chest, and another weighted pole to be pushed up from belly-button to chin, I was asked to perform varied number of repetitions on each. Being a rock-climber, I'm not a weakling, but I'll admit that a few weeks in an office chair will deplete your strength. I made it through, but not without making a commitment to myself that I would be visiting the gym more regularly before recruit class started. After proving that I could use a sledge hammer to forcibly enter a door, I was given the final task of demonstrating that I could crawl a short distance both on my stomach and on my hands and knees, both of which were no problem compared to the events that had transpired before hand.

And then, without much else in the way of fanfare or process, I was taken to the front desk and thanked for my time. I have no knowledge of whether this venture will prove successful, but what I can say now is that I've given it my best shot, so the rest is up to the guys at the headquarters office. Here's hoping.

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