A Better Approach for Fire Department Testing

Fire department testing is a critical way to ensure your staff understands essential information. Here are a few ways to improve your department's testing.

December 23, 2020

Article highlights
  • A far-reaching problem.
  • Better tests through better technology.

Last summer, nearly 500 California firefighters had to retake a promotion exam because of a cheating scandal involving two people.

An investigation found that one panelist had shared the answers with one candidate, but the incident widely affected Cal Fire.

Seven candidates who had been promoted since the test had to retake it. And several positions went unfilled for months because of the delay in fire department testing.

The incident in California is just one among many recent test cheating scandals in fire departments around the country.

Fire department testing scandals undermine public trust, cause delays in staffing, and hurt the department’s reputation. But even if an incident of cheating never gets public attention, it can result in someone getting hired or promoted when they may not be qualified for the job.

Why Is Fire Department Testing Important?

Fire department testing isn’t just for hiring and promotions. Firefighters may have to complete tests to obtain and renew special certifications and licenses. Many departments also use tests to assess firefighter comprehension after training.

And of course, in the fire service, knowing the proper procedures and information can be the difference between life and death.

Ineffective testing doesn’t just cause staffing problems. It may mean a firefighter gets certified in an area for which they’re not properly equipped. Or that leaders keep using confusing or ineffective training content. This can put firefighters at risk. They could find themselves in a dangerous situation and not know how to proceed.

Good firefighter training and testing helps create a culture of accountability and ensure that every firefighter has the knowledge they need to stay safe and serve the community well.

Online firefighter training and testing software can help commanders evaluate the effectiveness of training and spot areas that need improvement. A good firefighter training software gives department leaders an overall picture of training and also lets them see how each individual is doing. This can help them know which staff members are best qualified for different positions or specialization.

The Problem with Traditional Firefighter Testing

In the past, most fire departments used paper-based systems for firefighter training and testing. This approach to firefighter testing can take up valuable resources. The costs of paper, printing, and administrative hours can eat into training budgets.

For example, Russell Peterson, the Division Chief of Training & Risk for Brentwood Fire & Rescue, remembers spending hours writing different versions of in-service tests. After creating, printing, and distributing the tests, Peterson then would have to grade them by hand.

Plus, traditional firefighter testing methods don’t have many accountability measures to make sure firefighters really understand the information. If every staff member is given the same version of a paper firefighter civil service exam year after year, they can easily share questions and answers.

Some electronic solutions and online firefighter training systems create the same issue. With some electronic multiple-choice tests, Firefighters can easily memorize the answers without having to truly know the material.

In Peterson’s case, he originally switched Brentwood’s fire department tests to the online testing tool Quizegg. But the system did not allow for much administrative control, and he worried about the security of the information.

Brentwood eventually implemented PowerDMS’s online training software, which Peterson says made online training 33 percent faster than it was with Quizegg.

A good online firefighter training tool like PowerDMS keeps test information secure, giving administrators control over who can access what information before test day. It makes it easy to create and distribute customized firefighter tests, drawing on a bank of questions and answers to make each quiz unique.

How do you cheat on a firefighting test?

What constitutes cheating on fire department testing isn’t always clear-cut.

For example, in a recent incident at a department in Columbus, Ohio, several recruits prepared for a test using a website created by a classmate. The website included questions that were very similar to those on the division’s EMT test.

After an investigation, the department concluded that using the website wasn’t cheating because recruits already had access to many similar study aids.

In many cases, cheating scandals center around the question of whether some of the test-takers have an unfair advantage over the others. Therefore, some fire departments simply give all recruits access to a database of potential questions and materials to study.

This approach may prevent your department from ending up on the news because of a cheating scandal. But it may not be the most effective method of fire department testing.

Online Firefighter Training is Efficient, Saves Money

Fire department testing used to require mounds of paper and printing materials, monitored classroom space for test-taking, and hours of grading exams by hand.

Fortunately, you no longer have to rely on paper processes for fire department testing. There are many software tools that can simplify the process of creating unique exams, distributing them to employees, and analyzing the results.

Good technology makes the testing process much easier, but it doesn’t automatically fix every issue. Here are a few ways to make your department’s testing process more effective:

Try written exams in addition to multiple choice

Multiple-choice is the most common format for most fire department training. Multiple-choice quizzes have clear right and wrong answers, which makes them easy to create and grade. They also make overall testing results easier to quantify and analyze across the department.

However, multiple-choice exams may not be the most effective way to assess knowledge. Multiple-choice encourages rote memorization and makes it easier for firefighters to share answers.

In fact, a recent study found that multiple-choice testing may hinder the development of high-level critical thinking.

Therefore, one way to improve the quality of fire department testing is to mix question types.

Including short answer questions makes cheating more difficult since test-takers can’t simply reuse answers. It also ensures that test-takers know the material well enough to put it in their own words instead of simply regurgitating memorized answers.

Short answer questions can even allow you to see how employees would apply their knowledge to particular situations.

This doesn’t mean you have to do away with multiple-choice entirely.

Depending on the nature of the exam, you may want to include a mixture of question formats. This can give you a more accurate picture of your staff’s understanding of a subject.

Never give the same exam twice

Some fire departments issue the exact same exam – with the same questions in the same order – every year for recruitment or promotion. This makes it easy for those who have already taken the exam to share the questions and answers with new recruits.

On the other hand, randomizing the order of questions and answers reduces the ability for test-takers to copy answers from a previous exam.

Some regulating bodies even require test randomization as part of the accreditation process.

With a traditional, paper-based fire department testing process, this is a tall order. Manually copying and pasting questions and answers in a different order for every test is time-consuming and frustrating.

However, firefighter online training software makes this process much easier. Most testing software allows you to select from a pool of questions and deliver them in a random order, making the exam unique for every firefighter.


Online firefighter training is more secure

Leveraging technology for fire department testing also adds a layer of security.

Keeping physical, paper copies of exams and answer keys can cause issues with cheating and security.

A recent cheating scandal at a fire department in Florida resulted from a staff member finding a copy of promotional exam questions while doing routine cleaning around one of the stations.

With an online firefighter training software, staff members can’t stumble upon an answer key or pass around a copy of the exam.

Individual logins and automatic randomization prevent test-takers from copying off one another or sharing answers.

Most testing software only displays one question at a time, which makes it more difficult for a test-taker to copy all of the questions quickly by taking a picture of the screen.

Identify patterns or trends in answers

An online testing software allows you to quickly view each person’s individual results, but it also lets you track trends and patterns in testing.

For example, if an abnormal number of people get the same question wrong or answer in the same way, it can alert you to a potential problem.


It may be as simple as a confusingly worded question, which you can remove from the question pool while you sort out the problem.

However, these testing patterns can also highlight bigger issues in training or policies. For example, if a majority of recruits answer wrongly on questions about a particular safety procedure, your department may need to alter the training materials for that procedure or offer more training in that area.

Seeing the testing data all together can reveal your staff’s strengths and weaknesses and help your leadership team make better decisions.

Outsourcing exams

Some fire departments are starting to outsource testing to third-party services.

Outsourcing firefighter training can save time and energy. As a study by RAND pointed out, outsourcing the firefighter civil service exam can help ensure that the test is valid and reliable. It takes the burden off department administrators to write test questions and distribute tests.

Many departments also outsource their firefighter fitness test. In departments with many applicants, outsourcing the physical ability test can speed up the hiring process. Department leaders can select from a pool of candidates who have already passed the test.

However, outsourcing does have its downsides. It means your department is no longer in charge of deciding which questions will go on exams. And you may have less control over testing data and trends, as well.

For the fitness portion, some companies simply do a pass/fail test, meaning your department has little control over firefighter physical requirements.

Fire department testing is an essential part of hiring good recruits, assessing comprehension, promoting qualified candidates, and more.

Online firefighter training software can help your department make tests more secure and effective, making testing an incredibly helpful tool.

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