Promotional Prep: Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics - Engine Company Operations

An assessment center is an examination process that is designed to simulate situations, which are common to the rank being tested. Each individual exercise is designed to measure the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics of an individual candidate in each situation. It is the believe of many within the promotional

preparation field, that the oral assessment center is the most efficient and effective means available for evaluating the knowledge of a test candidate. The thought behind this is that it is simply a true measure of the candidate’s abilities.

There should be no doubt in any test candidate’s mind, that the company officer must possess significant amount of information to do well on a promotional exam. Company officers need to be well versed in such areas of study as building construction, fire behavior, incident management, and engine/ladder company operations to name just a few. Students, especially new students, can often be overwhelmed by not only the vast amounts of information they need to study, but also from organizing and preparing the material so they can adequately respond to any challenges presented within an assessment exercise.

To assist with this preparation, students need to start at the beginning. Oral assessment questions for the company officer generally will be designed to evaluate the student in several task areas. Task responsibilities for the company officer can be extensive and vary between the responsibilities of an engine or ladder company. As students begin their preparation, they need to be organized. Test candidates who scored well on their exam, will often tell you that they had a flexible “game plan” or a strategy for answering test questions. When questions require a comprehensive response, students need to be able to not only adapt to the specific challenges presented in the exercise, but they also need to be able to expand and elaborate on their response to not only ensure an adequate and thorough answer, but also to achieve the higher score. What we will do in this article and next few that follow is present the studier with a game plan for just some of the areas of responsibility for the company officer.


Task based responsibilities for the engine company officer within an assessment center exercise will focus around eight primary responsibilities. (Acronym WASS-POCC)

  1. Establishing a Water Supply
  2. Apparatus Placement
  3. Hose line Selection
  4. Hose line Stretch
  5. Hose line Placement
  6. Hose line Objective(s)
  7. In Coordination with…
  8. Providing a Progress Report to Command

Water Supply: Establishing a water supply and the how to, will often be dictated by department procedure, assessment design, as well as scenario/exercise specifics. What we specifically mean by this is that there is often more than one way to establish and deliver water at an incident/exercise, and those options may need to be identified by the candidate. With that thought in mind, the test taker always needs to consider several factors and be prepared to organize their thoughts and responses for varying challenges. One of the first concerns within the water supply area of responsibility is water availability. For many, water supply availability will be established from a domestic source such as from a nearby fire hydrant off a particular size water main. We find that for many who test in the urban environment, test designers will often provide this resource simply because of its general availability. This is not to say that the urban fire officer does not need to be concerned with water availability. Depending upon the exercise and its design, assessment scenarios may present difficulties requiring other sources to be sought out by the candidate. Water availability options that may need to be identified by a candidate could very well include a natural source as a nearby river, lake, or stream, a tender/shuttle operation to and from the incident scene, or the need to set up a relay; all in an attempt to deliver the required water to suppress the fire.

Another factor that may need to be identified by the candidate is whether their responsibilities need to distinguish between a primary or secondary water sources. Primary water sources are generally those sought out by the first arriving engine company and are generally nearest to the tactical/operating zone. If your assessment exercise places you as the first arriving engine company officer, your response “has” to include how and where you would establish an efficient and sustained water supply close to the structure.

If the scenario is leading you toward identifying a secondary water supply, secondary water sources are those that are generally sought out by a second or later arriving engine company. Secondary sources could be established from a different and larger water main within the domestic water supply grid, or they could be identified again, as a potential drafting operation from a nearby river or lake.

 To take this concept a bit further, candidates should also be aware of questions where they need to address a third or later arriving engine company. We find these concerns primarily with a chief officer assessment, but if the scenario presents an incident with great potential and the exercise states that the chief officer is delayed, the first arriving company officer will need to be prepared to assign all the necessary resources. The point that should be gathered here is anticipation. Consider the potential fire growth and demonstrate to the assessment team your ability to anticipate and plan ahead.

Apparatus placement: Apparatus placement responsibilities for first arriving engine company can again differ based on standard operating guidelines, assessment design, and scenario specifics. In an urban setting where buildings are closely spaced or attached, key responses for the first arriving engine company in an assessment exercise can require that the candidate state that he/she would ensure that the apparatus would be placed “past the fire building”. In our seminars, we present this as a mandatory response in an answer key for a private or multiple dwelling exercises in a congested urban setting. Placing the first arriving engine company past the fire building is a critical consideration in the situation(s) outlined that has three distinct advantages that assessors maybe looking for. Those advantages would include:

  1. As the apparatus approaches and passes the building, it will allow the officer to have a three-sided view of the building. This view will assist the officer with his/her on-scene size-up.
  2. Placing the first arriving engine company past the fire building allows sufficient room for placement and use of the first arriving ladder company. This is a mandatory response for scenarios that involve multi-floor structures.
  3. The third reason why keyed responses for engine company placement focus around placing the apparatus past the fire building is that it facilitates the stretching of the initial and any subsequent hoselines into the fire building. With most of the hose stretches coming from the rear of the apparatus, it would only make sense to place the apparatus to assist with this operation, especially when staffing is at a minimum. See the enclosed photo.

Hose line selection, stretch and placement:  Hose line selection, stretch and placement challenges and any related questions are the direct responsibility in an assessment center exercise of the company officer. There should be no doubt that the size hose line chosen, the number of lengths needed to get to its intended objective, and the hoselines avenue of approach are all responsibilities of the engine company officer. It should therefore become a requirement in designing an exercise for a company officer that an assessment center test a candidate’s knowledge in these areas.

            One of the first considerations in this section for the engine company officer is to determine if the building has any auxiliary appliances. If the exercise design presents a building that contains a sprinkler system, standpipe system, or both, it is a necessary and required response to supply and augment the system(s). Typically, standard operating procedures for most fire departments dictate that the first arriving engine company not only be responsible to start the fire attack, but they are also given the responsibility to supply the buildings auxiliary system(s). Although departments will vary based on what size hose line to use and which engine company is responsible for augmenting the system, when addressing the assessment board, we recommend that you site your department’s standard operating practices for this part of your assessment. Just make sure you supply the building system(s)!

When we look at hose line selection for structural firefighting, research shows that for most departments across the country, hose line selection options, whether stretching from a standpipe riser or from the apparatus hose bed, will generally be between the 1-3/4 inch and 2-1/2 inch hose line. What is important to note here is that each size hose line has its own limitations as well as capabilities which will definitely require a test candidate to be able to identify and justify for an assessor why he or she is choosing the size line for the exercise/scenario they are confronted with.

To help clarify this thought, the decision on whether to use a 1-3/4 or 2-1/2 inch hose line will be based on the scenario and its size-up factors. Factors such as the building’s construction, square footage, occupancy content, building setback, and the life hazard profile are just some of the size-up factors that may be present within a scenario which could influence hose line selection.

Objective: Hose line placement within an assessment exercise will be dependent

upon the occupant life hazard and the fire’s location. Whenever an exercise involves a hose line task, candidates will need to identify where the hose line is to be placed, as well as state the objective of its use. Hose line placement and the required steps that must accompany those responses will focus around our most important size-up factor; the life hazard presented in the scenario. To give you a few examples to review, if you were presented with a fire on a lower floor of an occupied multiple dwelling, a critical response from a test candidate would be to “place a hose line into the interior staircase of the fire building to restrict fire from extending to the occupied floors above”. In another example, a candidate may need to stress the need to “confine a fire that is exiting onto a fire escape with a trapped occupant above”. And in yet another, a scenario could describe a fully involved structure where the first stretched hose line may be needed to “protect the most severely threatened exposure building”. In all the examples sighted, the occupant life hazard and the location of the fire dictated the placement of the initially stretched hose line.

Coordination/Progress reports: A great conclusion statement for the engine company officer that we have incorporated into all our task-based responses is the need to show how your responsibilities fit into the larger fireground picture. Informing assessors that all engine company operations would be in direct coordination with the ladder companies’ operations is a necessary component that will be strongly reflected on an answer key. It is important to remember that even though you perform coordinated operations on the fireground on a daily basis back home; you cannot assume that you will be given credit for what may seem like an expected responsibility. In an oral assessment exam, “if you don’t say it, you won’t get credit for it.”

With this thought in mind let us go one step further. In our preparation seminars we also advise our students to state within their oral responses that they would periodically provide Command with progress reports. Chief officers have limited information as they supervisor a division/sector or stand at the command post. The information that is relayed from the companies placed in and around the incident helps in the decision-making process, which in turn assists with overall management, accountability, and scene safety. Stating that you would “coordinate your operations with the ladder company and provide periodic progress reports to command” are two simple, yet effective steps that will enhance your technical score.

The enclosed acronym and game plan are designed to assist the studier with their preparation. Although we consider this the foundation of the engine company officer’s assessment and preparation, it alone is not enough…. but it is a good start.


Michael Terpak has been in the fire service for 44 years spending the last 36 years with the Jersey City Fire Department where he recently retired as a Deputy Chief and City-Wide Tour Commander. He is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey based consulting firm designed to prepare firefighters and fire officers studying for promotional exams. He can be contacted at or 973-726-9538.