At the age of 36 years old, I decided I wanted to be a firefighter.
Yeah, I know – a little late for a major career change, right?
After 15 very enjoyable years in the fitness industry, I felt it was time for a change. Although I love the life-changing moments we can be privileged to witness with clients, there are things I don’t love about the industry as well. Notably, I don’t enjoy the need to be prominent on social media and the related pressure we might feel to sell our services with aesthetic imagery – hot abs now! Lose 10 kg by summer! – rather than the deeper benefits of health and wellness.
But what else was there? I’d learned I was not interested in simply making money, so I knew a move to any business that was income-focused rather than people-focused wasn’t going to be for me. I looked at the charitable sector, but had a hard time imagining sitting at a desk all day, no matter how excellent the cause. I was still in limbo, waiting for a great idea to strike, when I met firefighter recruiters at FILEX two years ago.
The meeting was serendipitous – if the TRX stand hadn’t been across from theirs at the expo, I never would have seen them, since I usually head out of the noise and action of the expo on breaks. Lucky for me, I was able to have a few chats over the three days of the expo and they told me all about firefighting as a career. They were recruiting specifically for females, since the current levels of females in firefighting range from 2% – 4% across the various Australian services.
They were pretty blunt about the numbers, too: they said 85% of females who applied failed the physical component of the application test.
I went away from that weekend convinced to give it a shot. Why wouldn’t you want a role where you enjoy a closely knit team environment, where it’s a necessity that you stay fit and healthy, where your only role is to help the community or prepare/train/organise/maintain the equipment used to help that community? No one is in it for the money. Sounds good to me!
Plus, if I’m honest – I’ve ALWAYS wanted to ‘keep up with the boys’! I have an older brother that I wanted to keep up with, I had an early growth spurt and was taller than all the boys until year 8 – and I was VERY disappointed when I learned that men have more muscle mass than women! I still feel a bit pissed off by this – that a man who doesn’t take care of his health and fitness could be stronger than a woman who does just seems deeply unfair.
I began researching the services across Australia and comparing them. I went to as many information sessions and practice sessions as I could – the CFA ran a physical practice session specifically for females which was invaluable. I researched as much as I could about the application processes. Eventually, I decided to apply to QFES in Queensland – their rural, urban and SES components are all one organisation, which seemed a bit simpler than what we see in Victoria!
The application has 6 distinct stages, and they tell you straight up that only 2% of applicants are eventually successful – talk about intimidating odds! The stages are: Online cognitive assessment, beep test, supervised written test, physical test, panel interview and psychological assessment. After you finish stages 1 – 4, you wait between 2-4 weeks to hear whether or not you’ve scored highly enough to proceed to the next stage – I was pretty much constantly nervously waiting and obsessively checking my emails!
I changed my training to prepare for the physical test. Luckily, I was already engaged in ‘functional’ training (multidirectional movement, not too much static work, varying tools) so I just made sure to put in rope pulls from all angles, sled work, heavy dragging exercises (tying a few powerbags together), sideways sledgehammer work (quite tricky to set up at a gym, but how else can you mimic the sledgehammering a door open part of the test?), static tool holds using kettlebells, farmers carries and heavy stepups. For the QPAT-1 physical test, you need to perform a series of tasks in no more than 7 mins and 29 seconds – if the clock hits 7 mins 30, you’ve failed.
On my first application, I scored 7 mins 15 seconds. Hooray! And double hooray – I got an invite to the next stage, the panel interview!
Now if this were a movie, this is where we would cue the ominous music, because I did NOT pass the panel interview stage. I don’t know if your experiences are different, but in 15 years of fitness, I have never had a ‘formal’ interview. Interviews have always involved going in, having a chat to someone, taking them through a training session, and bob’s your uncle! Let me tell you – a panel interview for a government organisation is a VERY different ballgame! (Understatement of the year.)
I bounced in there having done zero preparation other than a phone call to a QFES firefighter and essentially had an informal chat with the panel, answering off the cuff. I didn’t realize they were looking for specific answers that showed how I’d researched and prepared – in hindsight, it’s no surprise I didn’t get the nod at that stage. On the day, however, it was CRUSHINGLY disappointing to get the phone call (usually you hear the same day as your interview) letting me know I was out and could apply in the next round. There were tears, and in a public place, too!
Cue some major soul-searching, major self-doubt, major am-I-good-enough, major am-I-delusional, major feelings of worthlessness. I’d never experienced a failure to attain something I deeply wanted – ever! Talk about a reality check! I’d say it took me at least a month to start to think rationally about my failure, another month to think a little deeper about interview techniques and admit they were totally right to knock me back at that stage – I hadn’t shown the preparation required to pass that stage.
Fast forward six months. This time, I knew what I was facing, and I was FAR more prepared for every stage. I purchased practice booklets for mechanical, spatial and mathematical reasoning. I ran a beep test once a week for months. I trained with a 20kg weight vest on (which you have to wear during the QPAT-1) until it felt pretty darned comfortable. I called on clients who worked in recruitment, in government departments and who ran their own businesses to run me through practice interview sessions. I was PREPARED, and it must have showed in my results, as I got through each stage, knocking 7 seconds off my QPAT-1 time, even with one mistake that lost me 5 seconds on the ladder raise!
This time, when I turned up for my panel interview, I had practiced SO many times I knew exactly what I wanted to get across. I’d say for 4 out of the 5 questions, I was very happy with my answer – for one of them, the question was entirely new, unexpected and I didn’t have answers prepared, but it must have been good enough, because I got the happy phone call letting me know I was through to the psychometric assessment!
I can’t tell you anything about that component of the test as QFES has asked all candidates not to, to maintain an even playing field in the future. It is an even playing field at present; no matter how hard I looked for info on that, I couldn’t find anything – now I know why!
I received my letter of offer on 21 December and am booked to start my 16-week recruit course on 23 May 2017. But you’re not ‘in’ until you succeed at every component they teach you during that period, and not everyone succeeds. Plus, I have to obtain my medium rigid vehicle license and go through a thorough medical, including sight, hearing and other components. Even if you succeed
during your recruit course, you’re not ‘in’ until you pass your probationary period on the job – I’ve resigned myself to continual striving and focus for at least the next two years!
Ultimately, however, to be in a role where I might be able to make an actual, real difference in the community, to potentially save lives and to hopefully inspire more women to enter the services – I can’t imagine a more useful thing to do with the next 20 years of my life.