Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

By Travis Verdegan
Black River Falls Area Staff Specialist
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A few months ago, I found myself wondering a few things related to aptitude assessment and decided to check with the LLC to see if they’d done anything with the topic that I might have missed. They got back to me that they hadn’t, but they wanted to take the bones of my email and turn it into a blog. I immediately set to work on it. But, like many things, I got sidetracked along the way, like by a few months. The upside of this sidetrack was that it allowed me time to consider things I hadn’t formed into complete thoughts.

There has been a lot of good discussion lately on risk management. The thing that continuously strikes me is that much of this talk circles around new processes or taking a fresh look at how decisions are made. I kept getting this feeling that we in many instances were overlooking the individual(s) making decisions in real time. Example: The “green” firefighter(s) seeing a rapidly evolving situation during initial attack without the benefit of an IAP or supervisor to bail them out in the moment.

I’m a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. Recent events for that team have sparked a new rendition of the old debate: players vs. plays. In other words, what is more important: good coaching or talented players?

Ultimately, I believe in football and in wildland fire, both are important. I would classify a lot of the recent discussion related to risk as being focused on the plays. My following blog post is what I came up with to focus the conversation onto the players.

Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

Why don’t we assess aptitude for fire positions both in day-to-day hiring and in the qualifications management process?

My Post

I’ve often thought we could borrow a few more things from the military. Namely, the way we recruit/hire and compensate the workforce (a little tuition assistance commensurate to the risks we were exposed to as seasonals could have changed a lot for many of us), as well as setting an initial benchmark for an individual’s propensity toward certain aptitudes (specifically risk recognition and assessment).

To Build on the Latter

The military uses the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gauge the potential for future success in various aspects of service. If there was a component of aptitude assessment that helped predict ability to assess risk, then there may be a better way to place those people with the highest ability in vital positions and better promote them through the qualifications management process.

I know we have the Position Task Book (PTB) process sponsored by NWCG to provide a subjective analysis of an individual’s behaviors and competencies related to a qualification. As a person who plays a significant role in the qualifications management process in my home state, I have a love/hate relationship with PTBs. I love the intent, but I don’t know that we collectively work within it.

Case in point, survey a western hotshot crew to see if they have any bias, unconscious or otherwise, related to having a DIVS from east of the Mississippi. As with many biases, while there may be merit to this line of thinking, it should not be universally applied. What I’m saying here is: I’ve seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other for what it means to be a qualified DIVS—or any other position for that matter.

. . . we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.

Collectively, I’d say we do a decent job subjectively analyzing behaviors and competencies, you might think of the results like a bell curve. Within any bell curve there is going to be variability, and some of that variability is going to be statistically significant. On one end of the curve lives the effect of “elitism” and on the other, “fast tracking”.

In some instances, we struggle when we start to try to incorporate objectively quantifiable measurements into the process (i.e., fire size class, operational periods, number of babies, puppies, or kittens saved). In other instances, we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.

Use of some sort of aptitude-based testing would by no means paint the entire picture when it comes to individual performance assessment, but it might help curb some of the variability on either end of the curve.

On Hiring and Recruitment within Government Agencies

My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade. Hardly an assessment of anything other than the time I was able to work during the summer as a seasonal before having to go back to school each year. I’ve heard of plenty of other situations similar to this across a number of governmental agencies and know of a lot of good people who have moved on from the fire scene for various reasons.

My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade.

Like myself, I’m sure any one of you could list off professions of folks who used to be part of the fire scene. Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and electricians to name a few. For many of these folks, if the traits they exhibited as a seasonal firefighter were any kind of indication, then they are now masters of their craft. We lose a lot of good firefighters and thankfully most of them are not lost in tragedy.

No doubt the realm of HR law within government is fraught with well-intentioned policies and procedures aimed at fair hiring processes. Using a component of aptitude assessment in hiring might bring a valuable element into hiring within the fire community. Beyond that, an innovative approach to recruitment/retention could go a long way toward keeping some of the ones lost to other professions.

Tying in Risk

I would be willing to bet that innate early risk recognition ability—the kind that could be applied intuitively without the use of complex computer models, ICS forms, or policy—could be found in those people with a strong aptitude for pattern recognition, regardless of their geographic location or what agency they work for. I’m guessing the military and others already have proven this. We have taken the approach of putting together our best and brightest minds to come up with the rules and policies to make the risk assessment easy for folks (i.e., the 10 and 18). Follow these and everything will be OK, the Big Lie.

What if there is a better way to put the right people in the right places to make the right decisions? What if some of those folks use that ability to assess their way right out of the “risks” associated with a career in government? What could a newly adapted recruitment process do for the wildland fire community?

I’m all in with the concept that we can never eliminate risk, but I do believe we can tip the needle closer to zero, even if just by one half of one percent.




6 thoughts on “Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

  1. You have hit the the sharpest point of a large iceberg. My very abbreviated take on our current risk zeitgeist. One half of one percent sounds about right, however the goal should never be to eliminate risk, nor assess employees for risk aversion. Risk provides us purpose in our work, and until recently it has been my opinion that we have only recently recognized the correlation. If and when we have clear intent and a clear mission communicated to all then we will have the framework for firefighters to make informed decisions in regard to values and hazards. There is much more to this, but for the sake of a busy Tuesday morning I will leave it at this.
    In regards to changing how we recruit, fill, and maintain our organization we need to reassess our hiring and training processes then work to develop a system based on the values that will carry us into the future. As you mention it may be stealing from another organization that has already learned lessons on how to assess candidates to fill critical positions, or we may find a way to create our own way to fill positions. Visionary leadership willing to take the political risk that will define our organization over the next 10 years, this is who I want to work for and I imagine that in our recruitment efforts of top talent we would find that they desire the same. (I don’t consider myself top talent, but if I was I would look for those qualities). Guidelines in candidate selection I like to utilize are plagiarized here:
    “Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities.” Dee Hock

    I look forward to change that will attract the best employees to our organization. Our recruitment will create foundation of our future successes… and failures.

    • Thanks for the response!

      A point of clarity, the line of questions i’m asking, is not intended to suggest we assess for risk aversion. I’m interested in knowing more about an individuals propensity to analyze a situation when support systems are not in place for the purpose of informing themselves of the risks involved in a timeframe that allows them to respond accordingly, if at all.

      Using a reference to football I would compare it the term “pocket presence”, the ability to narrowly avoid a sack and deliver a ball downfield to a receiver who flashes open in space only after the ball has been thrown, all the while knowing there are multiple very large defensive linemen looking to bury you in the dirt. Good coaching can only go so far in developing that kind of innate ability, and if it’s not present in some form to start with no amount of coaching or other physical abilities is going to matter.

      Again, a lot more to the conversation and thanks for contributing.

  2. Your article raises some valid points.
    As both a firefighter and an organizational development specialist I will point out that;
    First, basic skills and aptitude are important. Sufficient capacity in verbal and mechanical performance are essential to our work. This includes a good level of literacy and the willingness and ability to expand this skill set. Much of what you mention is built into the NWCG training materials themselves. One deficiency in those materials is feedback from an assessor, either real time or asynchronous. Simple scoring does not meet this need.

    Second, there has to be competence in officers and administration to develop the skill sets of of trainees. All too often these skills are short listed to what an immediate supervisor has trimmed to their useful list with the broader perspective being lost.The upper echelon of FF, federal agencies, have programs for this. Many more local training and development groups are not as well equipped for these demands. Access to resources is not usually the cause of these shortfalls in my opinion(NWCG does make their materials readily available). Time, money and a perceived need for independent operational capacity, seem to be the more common problems with staff making the effort for FF growth and training. Many small VFDs are taxed for resources.

    Third, we have a culture problem. The culture of keeping knowledge in order to preserve our positions rather than being open to making all our skills available to those who will replace us. This is rampant and stems from a perversion of an old union saying, ‘Preserve the secrets!’ It finishes with,’Reveal them constantly
    because if you don’t they die with you!’. Too often this has resulted in a practice of holding core elements from those who would benefit most from knowing those basic practices, nuances and misunderstandings of method and meaning. This includes keeping the public ignorant of what is being done and why it is done in the particular method of execution.

    Tim Kirkpatrick

  3. I retired in 2007 after 33 seasons with the USFS all in fire.

    Testing for aptitude may become a necessary element of hiring in today’s wildland fire agencies.

    With centralized hiring (FEDERAL AGENCIES) though USA Jobs, Fire Hire or whatever the current method of selection, local hiring control and assessment of quality applicants for fire positions has been greatly decreased. As a Hotshot Superintendent I hired an average 8-12 Temps, Students and PSE’s a year for 10 years. I was able to select the candidates that I felt met the needs of the crew, (skilled crew members with saw, aviation, EMT or other qualifications that were not official hiring criteria) without much negative influence from my superiors or HR. I don’t believe that is the case now.

    Aptitude testing was unnecessary in the past because the firefighters of my generation were usually Temps for 10 or more years before they were given the opportunity to become a permanent employee.

    Long term Temp employment gave the fire organization a good long look at who was going to “out last the bastards” and pay the dues required to gain that trip to Nirvana (and PSE status) as a GS-5 13-13 Engine Foreman or Hotshot Squad Leader.

    By the time I left the agency we experienced the progressive loss of LOCAL influence on hiring by the loss of hiring authority. (From the District level, to the Supervisors Office level, on to the Regional level and finally the dreaded ALBUQUERQUE SERVICE CENTER.

    Task books and apprenticeships were supposed to be the answer to establishing which employees had the skills/aptitude (mental, physical, the temperament and leadership qualities) needed to lead men and women in performing hazardous operations in a dynamic environment. I also had good and bad experiences with the Task Book process. Some evaluators take it seriously and some do not. Some trainees take it serious and some see it as a ticket punch exercise.

    Somehow we seem to be able to retain enough good firefighter leaders to make it through the next season.

    I believe this is due to those,who: See themselves as expendable (SERVANT LEADERSHIP) and Wildland Fire as a lasting and valuable endeavor, deserving of the effort needed to evaluate and mentor future leaders.

  4. Just a few ideas: 1) beware of aptitude testing and HR rules as you mentioned. 2) Aptitude scores can be manipulated by the HR system to fulfill hiring needs. 3) Objective aptitude tests are very hard to design when there is complexity and risk in decision-making.

    I think that a cadre of experienced instructors and evaluators are significantly better than objective testing. In another lifetime, I had to train people to fly in the USAF. “Nothing would beat putting ’em in the seat.” Later, you have to evaluate leadership combined with the decision-making as they move up in command. Humans do this instruction/evaluation best.

    As to the loss of expertise due to retirement – I sure get it. I don’t have very long left myself, and don’t have as much techno-savvy as the new-bees coming up, but I hope that my old “tricks” live on.

  5. I heard someone once explain that the military never tells every soldier that they will all be Generals one day, but in wildland fire we lay out a course where everyone equally advances through all the hoops, FFT1, CRWB, TFLD, DIVS, ICT3 etc. There is no option for people who might be smart and observant but not great leaders. There is also not a great option for people who are competent and safe leaders but maybe not as good at keeping people happy…which is the name of the game in federal firefighting it seems. Because so many people are all working on the same things, it can be very difficult for some people to get training opportunities- CRWB and ICT4 being two of the tougher ones to get done depending on the area of the country and the fire season. Some people get close and then their taskbooks expire, and they have to ask themselves if they want to start over again. Maybe there should be more skill based positions that are not leadership oriented? As it stands, to be a safety officer who recognizes risk and communicates it a person has to log an extensive amount of time in leadership capacities which perhaps means that some of the more observant people never make it that far.

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